Wronged in Paradise by Deborah Brown

Ah… life in Tarpon Cove, at the top of the Florida Keys. Sand, surf, sun-washed breakfast and… handcuffs? That’s new, especially when they’re slapped on Fab’s wrists and she’s accused of murder.

If Creole and Didier think Madison is going to “leave it to the professionals” while her best friend ruins her designer heels in a Miami lockup, they don’t know Madison. At. All. Madison leaves no stone unturned to find out who wants her bestie dead.

Fab doesn’t need some clean-hands, designer suit, spotless-reputation attorney on her case. She needs someone who’ll play as dirty as the bottom-feeders framing her for murder. Someone who may or may not be holding a grudge because Madison allegedly let his grandmother get her bump-and-grind on at The Cottages. Allegedly.

Madison vaguely remembers promising Creole she’d stay out of trouble. But what’s a girl to do when trouble smacks her in the face like a deployed airbag and dangles her over a watery grave? Naturally, a girl pulls up her tankini bottoms and swims with the sharks.

AMAZON

Read an Excerpt:

Chapter One

            That morning, Creole and I met our best friends, Fab and Didier, at our favorite restaurant, a local haunt called the Bakery Café. Fab snagged our usual table at the far end of the sidewalk, prime for people watching. We’d finished our breakfast and were lingering over coffee, making plans for the day, when a cop car careened up and illegally parked diagonally in front, blocking in a couple of cars, ours included.

            I shuddered.

            “What?” Fab demanded.

            “I don’t have a good feeling about this.” I attempted to rub away my tingling neck hair, which everyone who knew me knew was a bad sign.         “Maybe someone attempted to rob the restaurant again.”

            Fab’s blue eyes scanned every corner of the open-air patio.

            The car doors opened, and two officers got out.

            They weren’t local. I was on a first-name basis with most of the officers on the force.

            Creole straightened in his chair.

            One cop approached our table; the other hung back, hand on his weapon.

            “Fabiana Merceau?” the officer asked.

            “Yes.” She nodded.

            “Stand, please. You’re under arrest for the murder of Aurora Bissett.” The officer stood over her, cuffs in hand.          

            Fab stood slowly in her designer heels, smoothing down her skinny jeans and silk blouse. “I don’t know that person, and I’ve never murdered anyone.” She tucked her long brown hair over her shoulder.

            “Hands behind your back.”

            “Where are you taking her?” Didier asked. He also stood, towering over her. Her husband’s dark hair managed to fall perfectly against his face, exposing intense blue eyes, growing darker as his worry grew.

            “Not a word without your attorney present.” I sat up straighter and made a “zip-lip and throw away the key” motion. I reached under the table for Creole’s hand and squeezed, happy he was by my side. He put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me close and threading his fingers through my wild red mane. Thank you, humidity.

            “Everyone, stay seated,” the other officer who’d stepped forward said, accentuating his command with a stern stare around our table and the one next to us.

            The rest of the customers seated outside had ceased their conversations and turned their chairs for a better view, all ears, their attention on the unfolding drama. Patrons and employees that had been inside filled the doorways.

            The first officer slapped the cuffs on Fab and led her to the car, assisting her into the backseat. Seconds later, he signaled to the other officer, who climbed in, and the two pulled back into traffic.

            “I’m going to follow them.” Didier ran and jumped in his Mercedes, not noticing the women who turned to stare. He squealed out of his parking spot and followed the cops down the street.

            The waiter came over, and Creole settled the bill.

            Shifting in my chair to face Creole, I told him, “I want to go to the station. Fab’s going to need a friend.”

            “Fab has her husband, and he’d never let anything happen to her,” Creole said, as though I needed to be reminded. “He’ll get her the best representation.” He pulled me to my feet.

            I stood on my tiptoes and kissed him. “I’m going. Fab would be there for me.”

            “Not by yourself.” Creole grabbed my arm and walked me to the Hummer, opening the door. I slid in. “I recognized one of the officers, and Fab’s on her way to Miami. Whatever went down happened in their jurisdiction.”

         Creole had been an undercover cop until he got shot up and, after a long recuperation, decided he’d had enough. Now, he, Didier, and my brother, Brad, had formed a real estate partnership—a family affair, as every member was an investor, all of us silent until a vote was needed on the next venture.

            I retrieved my phone from my pocket and paused as Creole fired one question after another at me about Aurora Bissett. The biggest one being who was she? I had to tell him several times that, like Fab, I had no clue who the woman was and thus didn’t have any idea why someone would want her dead or why Fab was a suspect.

It never got old living in Tarpon Cove, ideally located at the top of the Florida Keys. The sun shone brightly that morning and glittered off the blue-green water. But I was having a hard time enjoying the warm weather this morning. I turned my face upward and soaked in the warm rays.

            Creole had shot up the Overseas Highway and took the curve north, headed to Miami, when his phone rang. I knew from his vague answers that it was Didier and he wasn’t happy with the direction of the conversation. Fab and I, for the most part, shared phone calls on speakerphone; the guys refused.

            “Didier doesn’t want you involved,” Creole said after he hung up. “He already called Tank, who’s out of town, so Didier called in a favor from a friend. He promised to call when they get back home.”

            Fab had met Tank during a jail visitation—he’d professed his innocence, and apparently he wasn’t full of it, as he’d retained his license and set up a law office in the Cove.

            “What? What are you talking about? Fab needs a lawyer. And a good one. Who better than me to help?” Didier knew that without having to be reminded.

            “Didier’s got that covered. He has a friend who’s a lawyer. He’s already contacted him, and the man is meeting them at the station. So Fab’s got representation.” He pulled into a left turn lane to hang a u-turn and head back south.

            I struggled to suck down a loud groan. “Fine, take me home,” I said militantly. “Once we get there, I won’t be getting out. I’ll drive myself. If you think I would sit back and do nothing, you’d be mistaken. Fab would be there for me and has proven so in the past, and I’m not letting her down.”

            “Madison Westin,” Creole growled, “you are the stubbornest woman ever.”

            I turned my head slightly, sucking in a calming breath, which rarely worked to relax my nerves. “That was disclosed before the I-dos, and you signed off,” I reminded him in a superior tone. “Too late now. I don’t want to hear about marryer’s remorse.”

            “You’re aggravating.” He signaled and pulled back into traffic.

            “Another irritating trait already disclosed,” I snapped, biting back a smile, happy that I didn’t have to drive myself. It would be worth any favors I had to pony up later.

            In the Westin family, we traded favors like hard currency, and the idea had spread to our friends, catching on and becoming popular. It came with the stipulation that when asked to pay up on said favor, you had to do it without complaining.

            I decided I’d had enough of the silence. “I know that you know this is a death penalty state. No offense to Didier’s friend, whoever he is, but he’s not the best criminal attorney in the state. That would be Cruz Campion. Fab needs the best, and he’s it. I’ll bet that she’d agree with me.”

            “Didier is her husband; don’t you think he knows what’s best for her?”

            I caught my snort in time. “No, I don’t. Not in this case,” I said in a huff. “Didier’s a businessman and has zero experience with the law.” I underscored that by holding up my fingers, forming an O. “You know I’m right, Mr. Ex-Undercover Badass.” I stabbed my finger at him. “Who would you want? Some priss Didier probably met hobnobbing at a South Beach party when he was a highly sought-after model, or a lawyer with an excellent win record in criminal court?”

            I’d put off making the call to Cruz’s office long enough, assailed by an attack of nerves. Our relationship was tenuous at best. I flicked through the contacts in my phone and called the man in question. It surprised me when his snooty assistant, Susie, didn’t answer and the call was instead transferred to the receptionist. “May I speak with Mr. Campion?” I hesitated to give my name, in case I was on a banned list. I knew that if Susie had answered, she’d never have put the call through. I’d bypassed her a couple of times to get to her boss, and she’d never forgiven me.

            “Mr. Campion is gone for the day,” a young voice said in a harried tone. Susie would’ve hung up.

            “When would be a good time to call back?”

            “Tomorrow afternoon. He has court in the morning.”

            “Thank you.” I hung up. That was the best news next to his taking the call.

            Cruz blamed me for his grandmother getting her bump and grind on while on vacation. He’d had to be reminded that I owned vacation cottage rentals and wasn’t in the business of regulating my guests’ sex lives. It had fallen on deaf ears. I’d thought about banning every one of his nine hundred relatives from ever getting another reservation. Good thing I hadn’t because it gave me enough of an edge for this conversation, or so I hoped. How long it lasted would depend on his mood.

            I called the next person on my list, hanging up after a minute. “That’s irritating and a first—calling the chief of police and getting an answering machine.” I called the main number for the Miami police department.

            “He’s no longer here,” said the man who answered, then hung up.

            “Did you know that the chief ditched his job?” I asked Creole, staring at the screen.

            “I guess you need to be reminded that you have a much better relationship with the man than I ever did.”

I laughed, which earned me a raised eyebrow. “I can’t help that I’m charming.”

He snorted and asked in a suspicion-laced tone, “Who are you calling now?”

            I ignored him as the call was diverted to a message box. “I hope you didn’t blow the area without so much as a good-bye. I need a favor, if you’re so inclined. If not, I’ve got criminal friends I can call.” I hung up.

            Creole shook his head.

            “That was Spoon, and he knows I’m kidding. Why do you suppose he didn’t answer?” Jimmy Spoon was married to my mother and was seldom averse to doing me a favor.

            “I’m sure that friendly message you just left will get you a return call.”

            “Sarcasm is unbecoming.”

            “You should be very nice to me. I may be the only one speaking to you when you’re done with your behind-the-scenes machinations, which you’ve been asked nicely not to do, and oh look, you’re doing anyway.” Creole knew a shortcut to the station, having worked there for years, and he pulled into the parking garage from a back road. He picked up his phone, making a call. “Where are you? Madison didn’t take no for an answer, so we’re here to hold your hand until you run us off.” He laughed and hung up, then got out and went around to help me out, grabbing my hand in a tight hold as though I might make a run for it. We hiked across the street.

            Didier was easy to find. He was the only person in the reception area other than the man at the front desk answering the phones. We sat in uncomfortable chairs next to him.

            Didier looked at me and held up his hand. “Before you get started, I called Cruz first and was told that he’s not taking new clients.”

            “Did you identify yourself as Fab’s husband?”

            He nodded. 

            We waited for what seemed like forever. Two hours, to be exact. Finally, a man wearing an expensive suit, not a strand of his sun-bleached hair out of place, strolled in, gave the lobby an arrogant once-over, and headed straight to Didier, who introduced him as Kurt Byron, South Miami criminal lawyer. He acknowledged Creole and me with the briefest of glances and directed Didier to join him off to one side. When they finished their short conversation, he went to the desk, and Didier motioned Creole over. I knew it was another “you can take your wife home” conversation, assuring us that he had the situation handled.

            They exchanged a few words, and Creole strolled back, a determined glint in his eyes. Recognizing he was about to fling his arm around me, I didn’t step out of his reach and also didn’t offer up another argument about not leaving, which he was clearly expecting. “We’re going home.” He escorted me out of the building and back to the car.

            Back on the highway, I got my phone back out and called Gunz, one of Fab’s longtime friends and business associate, who had far-reaching connections. He answered on the first ring. I’d improved in his esteem after successfully working with Fab on a couple of jobs for him. “Fab is being held at the police station in Miami on a murder charge. I don’t know anything other than that she was arrested. Any update you could get would be helpful. And if necessary, could you also have someone on standby, ready to make bail?”

            “I’m on it,” Gunz grunted and hung up.

            I scrolled through my phone and made another call. “Huge favor,” I said to Xander when he answered. If you asked him, he’d tell you he was VP of the first business that Fab and I had started together, which was nothing more than a phone number on a business card since we couldn’t agree on a name. Of course, no one knew that. It wouldn’t be professional. “Fab’s been arrested for murder,” I blurted when he answered. “She didn’t do it. I need you to run a check on Kurt Byron; he’s a lawyer friend of Didier’s. What I want to know is what his reputation is and, more importantly, has he had any murder cases and what’s his win record? You can bill me triple if you get the information back to me before tomorrow morning.” I gave him the few scant details about Byron that I’d garnered from Creole. “One more job. This isn’t a rush but don’t dawdle.” I pinched Creole’s thigh.

            “Ouch, dammit.”

            I shot him a cheeky grin. “The dead woman’s name?”

            “Aurora Bissett,” he snapped.

            I repeated it to Xander. “I want to know everything there is to know about the woman and any connection you can find to Fab.”

            Xander was our information specialist, and he was damn good at his job. While finishing his last year of college at the University of Miami, he’d eagerly agreed to work remotely. It was rare now for him to make an appearance at the office and lounge on the couch, which was his first choice for a seat, mainly for the advantage of seeing everything going on. It surprised me to find that I missed having him underfoot.

            “It’s impressive to watch you in action.” Creole smiled at me as I shoved my phone back in my pocket. “Fab’s lucky to have you as a friend.”