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Risky Business, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  Jonas felt the rage build again and smothered it. “When can I take my brother home?”

  “I’ll do my best to complete the paperwork today. I’ll need you to make a statement. Of course, there are forms.” He looked at Jonas’s set profile and felt a new tug of pity. “Again, I’m sorry.”

  He only nodded. “Let’s get it done.”

  Liz let herself into the house. While the door slammed behind her, she flicked switches, sending two ceiling fans whirling. The sound, for the moment, was company enough. The headache she’d lived with for over twenty-four hours was a dull, nagging thud just under her right temple. Going into the bathroom, she washed down two aspirin before turning on the shower.

  She’d taken the glass bottom out again. Though it was off season, she’d had to turn a dozen people away. It wasn’t every day a body was found off the coast, and the curious had come in force. Morbid, she thought, then stripped and stepped under the cold spray of the shower. How long would it take, she wondered, before she stopped seeing Jerry on the sand beneath the water?

  True, she’d barely known him, but he’d been fun and interesting and good company. He’d slept in her daughter’s bed and eaten in her kitchen. Closing her eyes, she let the water sluice over her, willing the headache away. She’d be better, she thought, when the police finished the investigation. It had been hard, very hard, when they’d come to her house and searched through Jerry’s things. And the questions.

  How much had she known about Jerry Sharpe? He’d been American, an operator, a womanizer. She’d been able to use all three to her benefit when he’d given diving lessons or acted as mate on one of her boats. She’d thought him harmless—sexy, attractive and basically lazy. He’d boasted of making it big, of wheeling a deal that would set him up in style. Liz had considered it so much hot air. As far as she was concerned, nothing set you up in style but years of hard work—or inherited wealth.

  But Jerry’s eyes had lit up when he’d talked of it, and his grin had been appealing. If she’d been a woman who allowed herself dreams, she would have believed him. But dreams were for the young and foolish. With a little tug of regret, she realized Jerry Sharpe had been both.

  Now he was gone, and what he had left was still scattered in her daughter’s room. She’d have to box it up, Liz decided as she turned off the taps. It was something, at least. She’d box up Jerry’s things and ask that Captain Moralas what to do about them. Certainly his family would want whatever he’d left behind. Jerry had spoken of a brother, whom he’d affectionately referred to as “the stuffed shirt.” Jerry Sharpe had been anything but stuffy.

  As she walked to the bedroom, Liz wrapped her hair in the towel. She remembered the way Jerry had tried to talk his way between her sheets a few days after he’d moved in. Smooth talk, smooth hands. Though he’d had her backed into the doorway, kissing her before she’d evaded it, Liz had easily brushed him off. He’d taken her refusal good-naturedly, she recalled, and they’d remained on comfortable terms. Liz pulled on an oversized shirt that skimmed her thighs.

  The truth was, Jerry Sharpe had been a good-natured, comfortable man with big dreams. She wondered, not for the first time, if his dreams had had something to do with his death.

  She couldn’t go on thinking about it. The best thing to do was to pack what had belonged to Jerry back into his suitcase and take it to the police.

  It made her feel gruesome. She discovered that after only five minutes. Privacy, for a time, had been all but her only possession. To invade someone else’s made her uneasy. Liz folded a faded brown T-shirt that boasted the wearer had hiked the Grand Canyon and tried not to think at all. But she kept seeing him there, joking about sleeping with one of Faith’s collection of dolls. He’d fixed the window that had stuck and had cooked paella to celebrate his first paycheck.

  Without warning, Liz felt the first tears flow. He’d been so alive, so young, so full of that cocky sense of confidence. She’d hardly had time to consider him a friend, but he’d slept in her daughter’s bed and left clothes in her closet.

  She wished now she’d listened to him more, been friendlier, more approachable. He’d asked her to have drinks with him and she’d brushed him off because she’d had paperwork to do. It seemed petty now, cold. If she’d given him an hour of her life, she might have learned who he was, where he’d come from, why he’d died.

  When the knock at the door sounded, she pressed her hands against her cheeks. Silly to cry, she told herself, when tears never solved anything. Jerry Sharpe was gone, and it had nothing to do with her.

  She brushed away the tears as she walked to the door. The headache was easing. Liz decided it would be best if she called Moralas right away and arranged to have the clothes picked up. She was telling herself she really wasn’t involved at all when she opened the door.

  For a moment she could only stare. The T-shirt she hadn’t been aware of still holding slipped from her fingers. She took one stumbling step back as she felt a rushing sound fill her head. Because her vision dimmed, she blinked to clear it. The man in the doorway stared back at her accusingly.

  “Jer-Jerry,” she managed and nearly screamed when he took a step forward.

  “Elizabeth Palmer?”

  She shook her head, numb and terrified. She had no superstitions. She believed in action and reaction on a purely practical level. When someone died, they couldn’t come back. And yet she stood in her living room with the fans whirling and watched Jerry Sharpe step over her threshold. She heard him speak to her again.

  “Are you Liz Palmer?”

  “I saw you.” She heard her own voice rise with nerves but couldn’t take her eyes from his face. The cocky good looks, the cleft chin, the smoky eyes under thick dark brows. It was a face that appealed to a woman’s need to risk, or to her dreams of risking. “Who are you?”

  “Jonas Sharpe. Jerry was my brother. My twin brother.”

  When she discovered her knees were shaking, she sat down quickly. No, not Jerry, she told herself as her heartbeat leveled. The hair was just as dark, just as full, but it lacked Jerry’s unkempt shagginess. The face was just as attractive, just as ruggedly hewn, but she’d never seen Jerry’s eyes so hard, so cold. And this man wore a suit as though he’d been born in one. His stance was one of restrained passion and impatience. It took her a moment, only a moment, before anger struck.

  “You did that on purpose.” Because her palms were damp she rubbed them against her knees. “It was a hideous thing to do. You knew what I’d think when I opened the door.”

  “I needed a reaction.”

  She sat back and took a deep, steadying breath. “You’re a bastard, Mr. Sharpe.”

  For the first time in hours, his mouth curved…only slightly. “May I sit down?”

  She gestured to a chair. “What do you want?”

  “I came to get Jerry’s things. And to talk to you.”

  As he sat, Jonas took a long look around. His was not the polite, casual glance a stranger indulges himself in when he walks into someone else’s home, but a sharp-eyed, intense study of what belonged to Liz Palmer. It was a small living area, hardly bigger than his office. While he preferred muted colors and clean lines, Liz chose bright, contrasting shades and odd knickknacks. Several Mayan masks hung on the walls, and rugs of different sizes and hues were scattered over the floor. The sunlight, fading now, came in slats through red window blinds. There was a big blue pottery vase on a woven mat on the table, but the butter-yellow flowers in it were losing their petals. The table itself didn’t gleam with polish, but was covered with a thin layer of dust.

  The shock that had had her stomach muscles jumping had eased. She said nothing as he looked around the room because she was looking at him. A mirror image of Jerry, she thought. And weren’t mirror images something like negatives? She didn’t think he’d be fun to have around. She had a frantic need to order him out, to pitch him out quickly and finally. Ridiculous, she told herself. He was just a man, and nothing to her. A
nd he had lost his brother.

  “I’m sorry, Mr. Sharpe. This is a very difficult time for you.”

  His gaze locked on hers so quickly that she tensed again. She’d barely been aware of his inch-by-inch study of her room, but she couldn’t remain unmoved by his study of her.

  She wasn’t what he’d expected. Her face was all angles—wide cheekbones, a long narrow nose and a chin that came to a suggestion of a point. She wasn’t beautiful, but stunning in an almost uncomfortable way. It might have been the eyes, a deep haunted brown, that rose a bit exotically at the outer edge. It might have been the mouth, full and vulnerable. The shirt overwhelmed her body with its yards of material, leaving only long, tanned legs bare. Her hands, resting on the arms of her chair, were small, narrow and ringless. Jonas had thought he knew his brother’s taste as well as his own. Liz Palmer didn’t suit Jerry’s penchant for the loud and flamboyant, or his own for the discreet sophisticate.

  Still, Jerry had lived with her. Jonas thought grimly that she was taking the murder of her lover very well. “And a difficult time for you.”

  His long study had left her shaken. It had gone beyond natural curiosity and made her feel like a specimen, filed and labeled for further research. She tried to remember that grief took different forms in different people. “Jerry was a nice man. It isn’t easy to—”

  “How did you meet him?”

  Words of sympathy cut off, Liz straightened in her chair. She never extended friendliness where it wasn’t likely to be accepted. If he wanted facts only, she’d give him facts. “He came by my shop a few weeks ago. He was interested in diving.”

  Jonas’s brow lifted as in polite interest but his eyes remained cold. “In diving.”

  “I own a dive shop on the beach—rent equipment, boat rides, lessons, day trips. Jerry was looking for work. Since he knew what he was doing, I gave it to him. He crewed on the dive boat, gave some of the tourists lessons, that sort of thing.”

  Showing tourists how to use a regulator didn’t fit with Jonas’s last conversation with his brother. Jerry had talked about cooking up a big deal. Big money, big time. “He didn’t buy in as your partner?”

  Something came into her face—pride, disdain, amusement. Jonas couldn’t be sure. “I don’t take partners, Mr. Sharpe. Jerry worked for me, that’s all.”

  “All?” The brow came up again. “He was living here.”

  She caught the meaning, had dealt with it from the police. Liz decided she’d answered all the questions she cared to and that she’d given Jonas Sharpe more than enough of her time. “Jerry’s things are in here.” Rising, she walked out of the room. Liz waited at the doorway to her daughter’s room until Jonas joined her. “I was just beginning to pack his clothes. You’d probably prefer to do that yourself. Take as much time as you need.”

  When she started to turn away, Jonas took her arm. He wasn’t looking at her, but into the room with the shelves of dolls, the pink walls and lacy curtains. And at his brother’s clothes tossed negligently over the back of a painted white chair and onto a flowered spread. It hurt, Jonas discovered, all over again.

  “Is this all?” It seemed so little.

  “I haven’t been through the drawers or the closet yet. The police have.” Suddenly weary, she pulled the towel from her head. Dark blond hair, still damp, tumbled around her face and shoulders. Somehow her face seemed even more vulnerable. “I don’t know anything about Jerry’s personal life, his personal belongings. This is my daughter’s room.” She turned her head until their eyes met. “She’s away at school. This is where Jerry slept.” She left him alone.

  Twenty minutes was all he needed. His brother had traveled light. Leaving the suitcase in the living room, Jonas walked through the house. It wasn’t large. The next bedroom was dim in the early evening light, but he could see a splash of orange over a rattan bed and a desk cluttered with files and papers. It smelled lightly of spice and talcum powder. Turning away, he walked toward the back and found the kitchen. And Liz.

  It was when he smelled the coffee that Jonas remembered he hadn’t eaten since morning. Without turning around, Liz poured a second cup. She didn’t need him to speak to know he was there. She doubted he was a man who ever had to announce his presence. “Cream?”

  Jonas ran a hand through his hair. He felt as though he were walking through someone else’s dream. “No, black.”

  When Liz turned to offer the cup, he saw the quick jolt. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, taking up her own cup. “You look so much like him.”

  “Does that bother you?”

  “It unnerves me.”

  He sipped the coffee, finding it cleared some of the mists of unreality. “You weren’t in love with Jerry.”

  Liz sent him a look of mild surprise. She realized he’d thought she’d been his brother’s lover, but she hadn’t thought he’d have taken the next step. “I only knew him a few weeks.” Then she laughed, remembering another time, another life. “No, I wasn’t in love with him. We had a business relationship, but I liked him. He was cocky and well aware of his own charms. I had a lot of repeat female customers over the past couple of weeks. Jerry was quite an operator,” she murmured, then looked up, horrified. “I’m sorry.”

  “No.” Interested, Jonas stepped closer. She was a tall woman, so their eyes stayed level easily. She smelled of the talcum powder and wore no cosmetics. Not Jerry’s type, he thought again. But there was something about the eyes. “That’s what he was, only most people never caught on.”

  “I’ve known others.” And her voice was flat. “Not so harmless, not so kind. Your brother was a nice man, Mr. Sharpe. And I hope whoever… I hope they’re found.”

  She watched the gray eyes ice over. The little tremor in her stomach reminded her that cold was often more dangerous than heat. “They will be. I may need to talk with you again.”

  It seemed a simple enough request, but she backed away from it. She didn’t want to talk to him again, she didn’t want to be involved in any way. “There’s nothing else I can tell you.”

  “Jerry was living in your house, working for you.”

  “I don’t know anything.” Her voice rose as she spun away to stare out the window. She was tired of the questions, tired of people pointing her out on the beach as the woman who’d found the body. She was tired of having her life turned upside down by the death of a man she had hardly known. And she was nervous, she admitted, because Jonas Sharpe struck her as a man who could keep her life turned upside down as long as it suited him. “I’ve talked to the police again and again. He worked for me. I saw him a few hours out of the day. I don’t know where he went at night, who he saw, what he did. It wasn’t my business as long as he paid for the room and showed up to work.” When she looked back, her face was set. “I’m sorry for your brother, I’m sorry for you. But it’s not my business.”

  He saw the nerves as her hands unclenched but interpreted them in his own way. “We disagree, Mrs. Palmer.”

  “Miss Palmer,” she said deliberately, and watched his slow, acknowledging nod. “I can’t help you.”

  “You don’t know that until we talk.”

  “All right. I won’t help you.”

  He inclined his head and reached for his wallet. “Did Jerry owe you anything on the room?”

  She felt the insult like a slap. Her eyes, usually soft, usually sad, blazed. “He owed me nothing, and neither do you. If you’ve finished your coffee…”

  Jonas set the cup on the table. “I’ve finished. For now.” He gave her a final study. Not Jerry’s type, he thought again, or his. But she had to know something. If he had to use her to find out, he would. “Good night.”

  Liz stayed where she was until the sound of the front door closing echoed back at her. Then she shut her eyes. None of her business, she reminded herself. But she could still see Jerry under her boat. And now, she could see Jonas Sharpe with grief hard in his eyes.


  Liz considered working in the dive
shop the next thing to taking a day off. Taking a day off, actually staying away from the shop and the boats, was a luxury she allowed herself rarely, and only when Faith was home on holiday. Today, she’d indulged herself by sending the boats out without her so that she could manage the shop alone. Be alone. By noon, all the serious divers had already rented their tanks so that business at the shop would be sporadic. It gave Liz a chance to spend a few hours checking equipment and listing inventory.

  The shop was a basic cinder-block unit. Now and again, she toyed with the idea of having the outside painted, but could never justify the extra expense. There was a cubbyhole she wryly referred to as an office where she’d crammed an old gray steel desk and one swivel chair. The rest of the room was crowded with equipment that lined the floor, was stacked on shelves or hung from hooks. Her desk had a dent in it the size of a man’s foot, but her equipment was top grade and flawless.

  Masks, flippers, tanks, snorkels could be rented individually or in any number of combinations. Liz had learned that the wider the choice, the easier it was to move items out and draw the customer back. The equipment was the backbone of her business. Prominent next to the wide square opening that was only closed at night with a heavy wooden shutter was a list, in English and Spanish, of her equipment, her services and the price.

  When she’d started eight years before, Liz had stocked enough tanks and gear to outfit twelve divers. It had taken every penny she’d saved—every penny Marcus had given a young, dewy-eyed girl pregnant with his child. The girl had become a woman quickly, and that woman now had a business that could accommodate fifty divers from the skin out, dozens of snorkelers, underwater photographers, tourists who wanted an easy day on the water or gung-ho deep-sea fishermen.

  The first boat she’d gambled on, a dive boat, had been christened Faith, for her daughter. She’d made a vow when she’d been eighteen, alone and frightened, that the child she carried would have the best. Ten years later, Liz could look around her shop and know she’d kept her promise.