Sydney Brennan isn’t exactly the outdoors type, but the Tallahassee PI can’t say no when her investigator friend Mike Montgomery asks her on an unconventional first date. A lazy day canoeing down an idyllic Florida Panhandle river, with Mike providing a picnic lunch and most of the paddle power—what could go wrong? A lot, and this time it’s not even Sydney’s fault.
Keep reading for a sneak peek of River Bound…
Is it bad luck to get held at gunpoint on a first date?
Allow me to rephrase. Whatever the reason—luck, fate, karma, because you just knocked off a liquor store—any time you’re being held at gunpoint isn’t exactly a banner day. But if that day also happens to be your first date with someone, is that a sign? An omen of ill tidings for your budding relationship? That is, assuming you live through the date.
I’d had less than twenty-four hours to cultivate misgivings about this particular outing, but they’d been tickling at the back of my brain ever since I’d gotten the invitation. It had been an evening of unexpected phone calls. First, my friend Noel Thomas—not exactly a barfly—had called to invite me for a drink after work. Then my sister checked in with her latest pregnancy news. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by her calls—now I hear from her every week or so—but after more than a decade without contact, I still hadn’t gotten used to seeing her number appear on my phone. Last night, I’d had the unique pleasure of listening to Lisa dance around, searching for an acceptable word for her latest symptom: flatulence. Fart was out; believe it or not, toot won the day. She also had an itchy belly. Exciting stuff.
Shadows had fallen around downtown Tallahassee by the time Lisa finished cataloging her symptoms. (To be fair, no matter how strange or uncomfortable the bodily transformation, she was too thrilled to finally be pregnant to ever actually complain). I locked up my office and sat on the cool, concrete front steps, pulling my thin cardigan close. I could distinguish the shape of the buds on the sweetgum tree that arced over the house-turned-office building, but not their pale green color. Echoes of music drifted down from nearby Kleman Plaza, and from the other direction came a vague hum of people and traffic and the glow of lights. Friday night in the Big City.
“Why am I still here?” I asked aloud.
When the only other mammal in earshot, a squirrel perched on a branch above me, couldn’t give me a reasonable answer, I stopped stalling and hopped in my little Cabrio. Traffic was light, and Cecil’s tires crackled in the gravel parking lot of Cooper’s Bar in just over fifteen minutes, making me only slightly late. I climbed the steps and crossed the raised threshold carefully. Although a semi-regular at Cooper’s, getting through the front door without tripping was always a challenge.
Noel sat on a stool at the bar and swiveled toward me as I approached. Her straightened hair was pulled tight against her skull, and she was in weekday banker mode: gray pantsuit with matching pumps, a blouse some shade of orange that popped against her dark skin but would make me look like the risen dead, and a sweating glass of something iced and clear that probably was not water.
“You’re still wearing those cowboy boots?” she asked.
I hadn’t seen Noel since I’d taken her on an ill-fated surveillance gig with me a couple of weeks ago, wearing said boots. I tugged at my jeans as I sat, stretching one leg long to admire my brown leather footwear.
“It’s Florida. I’ve got to wear them while my feet won’t sweat. Besides, I seem to remember you wearing cowboy boots the last time I saw you.” I glanced around furtively, adding in a stage whisper, “And you’re black.”
She ignored my and protested, “That was to a bar.”
The owner of Cooper’s popped his graying head out from the back and smiled when he saw me. “The usual?” Glenn called out.
I gave him a thumbs-up, then inclined my head toward the rows of bottles a few feet away and asked Noel, “Is this not a bar?”
She rolled her eyes. “You wore those to work today, too.”
I shrugged. With my office so close to the capitol, I’d seen legislators wear boots to work— who cared about a lowly private investigator? Glenn set my Abita Amber and an icy glass on the bar. He raised his own corrected Coke, bumped my glass, then popped a few wasabi peas into his mouth from a bulk bag. One bounced off his mustache. I leaned over the bar to watch its progress and was also treated to a view of Glenn’s feet. “He’s wearing cowboy boots to work, too.”
“Your friend here denies she had a shitty week, but I don’t believe her,” Glenn said, tossing the errant pea in the trash and his long, reddish-brown braid over his shoulder.
I gestured toward the far end of the bar for more privacy. Noel rose with her half-full drink.
“Don’t worry,” I told Glenn, grabbing a handful of wasabi peas. “I brought a rubber hose.”
One of Glenn’s caterpillar brows rose, as though it had seen a particularly delectable leaf. I followed on Noel’s heels, but Glenn’s warm chuckle at my back made me shiver. My beer sloshed precipitously, a frothy film crawling out of the glass to coat my hand.
I slid onto a stool as Noel said in a low voice, “You’re chummy with the bartender.”
“Owner,” I said, trying to figure out how to wipe the spilled beer from one hand while the other hand still held wasabi peas. Impossible, so I tossed them all into my mouth, crunched a few times and told Noel, “And tonight isn’t about me. We’re here to talk about what’s going on with you.”
“What do you mean?” Noel’s face went still. The woman excelled at impassive.
“You’re drinking vodka—”
“Gin,” she corrected.
My face wrinkled in disgust. I hate gin. “Even worse. A couple of weeks ago, you were drinking Long Island Iced Teas like they were…”
“Iced tea?” she suggested, lip curling in an almost smile.
“You’re not usually such a smart-ass. Of course, I’d venture to say it’s out of character for you to have someone hold your hair while you puke in a parking lot like a college student, too.”
My phone rang, and I pulled it free from my purse for the final unexpected call of the evening. Speak of the devil—it was Mike Montgomery, an investigator who lived closer to the Panhandle’s Redneck Riviera than to the capital, and the man who’d been kind enough to hold Noel’s hair. I silenced the phone.
Noel stared down at the bar, and I worried my previous comment had pushed her too far. “I’m not judging; I’m just observing. You’re not yourself lately.”
I expected Noel to challenge me, to become defensive, but when she lifted her head she seemed relieved. “I’ve been seeing someone.”
“Okay,” I said, waiting for a boot of a different kind to drop.
“He’s married,” she admitted.
I couldn’t keep the surprise from my face. That’s not true; I probably could have, but couldn’t think of any good reason why I should.
“I know,” she acknowledged. “But I just told him it’s over.”
Last year, Noel had learned some ugly truths about her mother’s life and death. And although she didn’t talk about it, I knew she’d struggled to come to terms with what that meant for her own feminine identity. Her grandmother had also raised her with rigid ideas of right and wrong, and I was pretty sure she put adultery in the latter camp. Whatever Noel and the married man had shared must have been more than physical, and it must be costing her now to have ended it.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She nodded, bit her lip, then said in a firm voice, “I did the right thing.”
“Doesn’t mean it was easy. How’s he taking it?”
Her brows pinched together, making her appear more confused than anything else. “He wasn’t happy, but he agreed it was the right thing to do. We both know we wouldn’t be good together long-term, and he doesn’t want to leave his wife.”
“Of course not,” I said. “He wants it both ways.”
She glared at me, and I apologized. Over my shoulder, two men playing pool (early thirties, clean-shaven in jeans and long-sleeved shirts) racked for a new game. I squeezed my glass to hide my flinch against the loud clacking as one of them broke, then took another sip of beer and wished I’d gone for something darker. Or stronger.
“So you want to do something tomorrow, take your mind off it?” I asked.
“Thanks, but I can’t. Family obligations.” She smiled. “You’re welcome to come with me. I’m sure Grandma Harrison would love to see you.”
I happen to know the woman hates my guts. “Noel, sarcasm does not suit you, but I appreciate the effort. Want to see if Glenn can scrounge up something more substantial than wasabi peas?”
“For you, I’ll bet he will.”
“It’s not like that,” I said.
“Hey,” she protested, holding up her hands. “I’m not judging; just observing.”
I shook my head, but the creeping corner of my mouth betrayed me. “Okay, I had that coming,” I admitted, then leaned in. “It only happened once. Last year. And there were extenuating circumstances.”
Like we’d just almost been killed. Neither of us had made a move to repeat it. But we’d certainly enjoyed each other’s company that night, and the man had always relished the occasional jab of innuendo.
“Of course there were,” Noel said. “You’re a closet adrenaline junkie with a weakness for bad boys. The badder the better.”
My mouth fell open. But she wasn’t wrong.
“Sorry,” she said, and made a zipping motion across her lips. “You said tonight is about my bad choices, not yours. What do we need for that, a three-day weekend? A week-long retreat?”
It was worth the insult to hear her laugh. And honestly, her timeframe probably gave me too much credit in the common sense department.
I waved at Glenn, brought my hands together in prayer, and topped it off with my best hungry puppy dog eyes. The man could put together some mean bar grub when he wanted to; the challenge was making him want to. He’d started his grumbling way toward the fridges when my cell phone buzzed again. This time I answered.
“Mikey!” I said, with the exuberance of the old Life cereal commercial.
“Sydney!” he said, echoing my tone. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
Noel raised an eyebrow provocatively, so I turned my back to her.
“Not a thing,” I said.
“Want to go canoeing with me?”
“You mean, in a canoe?” I asked. Had I ever been in a canoe? I’d been in a kayak, and it was not the most comfortable mode of transport. “On a river?”
“Yes,” he said slowly, as though wondering if I was cracking up. “They tend to work better that way. I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
Noel’s eyes burned a hole in my back and confused thoughts ricocheted around my skull. “So is this, like, a date?”
Did I imagine the pause on the other end?
“Yes,” he answered. “The fun kind. Not the am-I-dressed-appropriately and is-this-a-shitty-restaurant kind. Are you in?”
Mike was someone I relied upon a lot—even when I didn’t reach out to him, I felt better knowing that I could. His friendship had been one of the best things to come out of the past year’s challenges. At some point (it snuck up on me, so I’m not sure when), I’d realized I wanted more than friendship. He hadn’t seemed ready to give it. Now that he was… I knew I should be happy, but I was scared.
“Syd? You still there?” he asked.
Scared… In the past year, I’d been kidnapped. I’d been beaten. I hadn’t been shot, but not for lack of trying. I’d been threatened, and more than once, I’d thought I was going to die. And this scared me? Bullshit. I wasn’t scared. I was stupid. And once you recognized it, there was no excuse for being stupid.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
“You’ll have to meet me early—say seven-thirty—at a place near Marianna.”
Ouch—that was why not. Mike gave me directions to a small shopping center right off Interstate 10, about an hour-and-a-half drive from my house. Did I mention at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning? He must have felt my hesitation.
“All you have to do is show up. I’ll supply lunch,” he said. “And remember, it’ll be seven-thirty Central Time.”
Which gave me an extra hour coming from the Eastern time zone and meant I didn’t have to leave until seven. “Okay. I can do that,” I said. “But I have to be home at a reasonable time. I have a brunch meeting Sunday morning.”
Glenn arrived with a mouth-watering bowl of chunky, spicy queso as I hung up. His stirring spoon still rested in the ceramic crock. I pulled it free for a decadent mouthful while Glenn dumped tortilla chips into another bowl. He swatted my hand, and the spoon rattled against my teeth.
“Were you raised by wolves?” asked the man who used to ride motorcycles with some of the scariest men in the South. He took the spoon from me gingerly in two fingers and tossed it in the sink.
“How does one dress appropriately for canoeing?” I asked.
“A canoeing date,” added Noel, who’d obviously been eavesdropping.
Glenn looked at me and snorted. “You ever been canoeing?”
“Dress to get wet. And take something dry for after. You’re gonna freeze your ass off.” He inclined his head toward Noel and added, “Come to think of it, that’s not a bad strategy for a date.”
“You mean, the clothes-changing requirement? Or because she’ll need someone to warm her up after?” Noel smirked.
I blushed and restrained my twitchy middle finger. Well, almost.