The Wrong Man: A Novel of Suspense

Dedication
 

To Yvon Le Fichant and David Minka, fabulous friends on three continents

 
Contents
 
chapter 1
 

For some reason she couldn’t understand, Kit woke on the last morning in Islamorada with the urge to do something a little dangerous in her life. Not like shark-cage diving or parasailing over the turquoise blue Florida Bay. She hadn’t lost her
mind
. She just longed for something that would make her heart pump harder and her breath catch in her throat.

Maybe it was because her vacation, a combination getaway and business-scouting trip, had been nice enough but had offered up no surprises, none of those unexpected discoveries you secretly yearned for on a trip. Oh, she’d done a kayak tour of the mangroves and she’d treated herself to a hot stone massage. But those were hardly the kind of activities that left you breathless, even though the massage therapist had stressed that the stones were actually “certified lava shells,” as if having them kneaded into your back was comparable to hiking along the rim of a volcanic crater.

Or, maybe the urge was tied to her birthday. She’d turned thirty-five the week before, had broken up five months before with a sweet, nice guy who’d been all wrong for her, and during the days leading up to the occasion, she’d goaded herself to use her birthday as an impetus to go bolder, to be more of a badass at times. As she’d left the office for the airport eight days ago, Baby
Meadow, her seventy-one-year-old interior decorating partner, had quoted a line of Mae West’s that kept echoing in Kit’s head: “Good girls go to heaven but bad girls go everywhere.”

But even as she toyed with the idea, she heard an internal warning. Wasn’t the problem with a little danger that you had no guarantee it could be contained? It was like a match tossed on dry brush. Maybe things only smoldered for a while, the embers glowing softly through the night until a light rain doused them at dawn. But with the right wind conditions, those embers could begin to flare, creating flames that would thrash higher and higher in the darkness. Until they torched everything you owned.

She stepped out onto the small, stone patio of her hotel room and discovered that the early April sky was cloudless, and the jungle-like grounds of the hotel—dense with palm trees and sawgrass—looked lush and seductive, in shades of deep green that she rarely liked to use in her work but always felt spellbound by in nature. A gecko darted up the trunk of a tree. Time to get moving, she told herself. It would be crazy not to make the most of her last day.

She dressed quickly—a bikini covered with a sarong and T-shirt—and headed for breakfast, her iPad tucked under her arm. The hotel was a small boutique one, almost motel-like in style but charming and Caribbean in feel. Her room was in one of a half-dozen white clapboard buildings separated from the main building by winding sand pathways. As she came around a bend in the path, she overheard snippets of conversation. It was a man talking, probably another guest up early, too, and after a moment she realized he was on a cell phone. There was a hint of consternation in his tone.

“I don’t want to wait much longer,” Kit thought she heard him say. And then, as she rounded the bend, his words were more distinct: “I’d rather have a few regrets than none at all.”

He was late thirties, she guessed, about six foot two with dark red hair cut short in a kind of Navy Seal style and a closely cropped beard and mustache. Dressed in a pale, long-sleeved shirt and cream-colored pants. He caught her eye and then looked away, lowering his voice at the same time.

As she passed him, she reflected on the last comment he’d made. Perhaps that should be her motto in life, she thought. But how did you guarantee a few regrets didn’t balloon into too many?

Breakfast was included in the price of her room, and she went a little nuts—glistening red papaya, half a muffin, a cheese and mushroom omelet, and a foamy cappuccino—telling herself to get her money’s worth. While eating she knocked off replies to a few emails and checked the news online.

She lingered longer than she’d planned. With half an eye directed toward a headline on her iPad, she grabbed her tote bag and left the restaurant, eager to reach the beach.

And then
bam
, she collided hard with someone. Her fault for trying to still read the darn iPad. She looked up to see that her victim was the red-haired man she’d passed on the path.

“So sorry,” Kit said. She felt like an idiot.

“It’s my fault, too,” he said politely. “My mind was elsewhere.”

She wondered if it had been on the conversation he’d had earlier. Well, whatever, decent of him to let her off the hook. He held her gaze tightly for a couple of beats, with eyes that were a light but piercing blue.

“Have a nice day,” she said. He nodded and they both went on their way.

She walked the beach and started shooting photos with her Samsung, mostly of the luscious white sand. She loved to catalogue shots of things whose names were the same as colors—like sand, olive, lavender, ash, or bone. It was fascinating to see how
many variations there were, and to liberate them all from the confinement of their names. Later, she read and ate lunch under a palm tree by the small, turquoise-bottomed pool. Then she changed into street clothes and took a taxi to a shop in town.

It was on the main road that ran through the island, a kind of honky-tonk strip, but there were a decent few stores, some of which she’d already perused, scouting for her client. The woman had vacationed as a girl in the Florida Keys and wanted the same vibe for a Jersey Shore cottage she’d recently purchased. That was actually part of the reason Kit had picked Islamorada to begin with—killing two birds with one stone. But now she was shopping just for herself. One of the stores specialized in fanciful exotic stuff, including a mounted sawfish bill that she’d practically drooled over.

The place was nearly empty but she liked that. She started down an aisle, relaxed in the moment. And then there he was again, Mr. X, the red-haired guy from the morning, wearing a tight, heather blue T now instead of the long-sleeved shirt. It was as if she’d conjured him up, the way a magician pulls a dove from his sleeve.

“Hello again,” he said, suddenly seeing her. His eyes held hers the way they had earlier.

“Oh, hi. Sorry again about this morning. No injuries, right?”

“No, none at all. Though I should warn you. I hear they’re going to make that illegal in some states—walking while reading a tablet.”

“Good to know,” she said, smiling. “I’ll leave my iPad at home—or use a designated reader.”

He didn’t say anything for a moment, just looked at her, as if weighing a decision.

“Are you hunting for souvenirs?” he asked finally.

“Sort of. What about you? You don’t seem like the type who goes for mirrors with seashells hot-glued to the frame.”

She wasn’t sure why she’d teased him that way. It was a tactic she sometimes relied on with awkward male clients, to entice them to open up.

“I’m going to take that as a compliment,” he said. “I was actually trying to find a gift for my big sister’s birthday. Any ideas? She’ll be forty-one. Nice taste but on the casual side.”

She wondered suddenly if he might be trying to pick her up. But she’d never been drawn to red-haired men. Weren’t they supposed to be brooding or even wildly mercurial, the type who’d think nothing of bashing another man over the back of the head with a bar stool?

“Will you need to pack it in your luggage?” she asked. “If that’s the case, you might want to think small.”

“She’s got a place in Miami. I’m headed there by car tomorow so I can take it with me.”

“So size isn’t an issue?” she said.

“Not really. But don’t women hate gifts in large packages? They assume you’ve brought them a juicer or an emergency kit for their car.”

“You’re so right,” Kit said. He looked, she thought, like the kind of guy who’d never given anyone a juicer in his life, and if he needed juice himself, he’d just crush a half-dozen oranges in one fist. Maybe he
was
a Navy Seal, decompressing after a raid on a terrorist cell or Somali pirates. “Okay, let’s see, then . . .”

She turned to scan the store and then headed down an aisle, with him trailing just behind her. After a minute or so, she spotted a hammered metal frame tucked behind a group of decorative boxes.

“What about this?” she said, easing it out. “A woman can never own enough frames. And this one would work with any style.”

“Even casual? Though maybe a better way to describe my sister is a touch Bohemian.”

“Yes, this would mix with that.” Kit smiled. “I’m actually a decorator.”

“Ahh. Well then,
sold.
” He accepted the frame from her. “I’m Matt Healy, by the way,” he added like an afterthought.

She was standing so close to him that she could see the light freckles on his face. There was something about him that was both rugged and refined—the cropped beard and mustache contrasting with the sophisticated air. And then there were those freaking blue eyes. When she’d handed him the frame, she’d noticed there was no wedding ring on his hand. Though, of course, that didn’t mean a thing.

“Kit Finn,” she said.

“Here on vacation?” he asked.

“Partly. I’m also checking things out for a client. How about you?”

“Uh, business and pleasure, too, I guess you could say. I sold my company recently and I’m trying to figure out what my next move should be. . . . I actually drove down here from New York this time.”

“And how was
that
?” she said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m from the city myself but I don’t think I could handle a drive that long.”

“Well, let’s just say it was an experience.” She sensed him deliberating again, caught between two thoughts, and then he glanced at his watch.

“I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee as thanks for helping me,” he said, looking back at her, “but I have a business call in a few minutes, and then another at four. Maybe later?”

“Sure,” she said. Though later seemed right up there with, “Why don’t we grab a bite together the next time we’re both in Bogotá.”

“Do you have a card at least?” he asked.

She pulled one from her wallet, handed it to him, and, as he
slid the card into his pants pocket, she said goodbye. Who knew? Maybe he’d at least need an interior designer at some point.

As he paid for the frame, she inquired of someone else behind the counter about the price of the sawfish bill—outrageous, unfortunately—and left the store. Heading up the street in the steamy air, she felt herself longing for a dip in the pool.

And then as she strolled, lost in thought, Matt Healy was suddenly hurrying up to her from behind.

“Hello, again,” he said. “This may be presumptuous on my part, but would you like to join me for dinner tonight? I was planning on eating at the hotel.”

“Yes, I’d like that.” Why not? she thought. To her surprise, she realized she found him attractive. And maybe having dinner with a total stranger would satisfy that yearning she’d had earlier for a little bit of danger.

“Great. Then why don’t we meet on the restaurant patio? Say, eight-thirty?”

After parting from him, she walked to one more shop, and then arranged for a cab back to the hotel.

Matt was already seated on the patio when she arrived for dinner. His back was to the bay, and though it was too dark to see the water now, there were scattered points of light farther out—boats, she assumed. Ones that seemed to be on secret missions.

As she wound her way to the table, she noticed he was reading on his phone, holding it close to the hurricane lamp on the table. For a moment a frown flickered across his face. As if sensing her presence, he suddenly glanced up and took her in. She’d worn her blond hair in a messy bun, with a few loose pieces hanging around her face. And she’d picked an outfit that she thought was sexy enough but didn’t look like she was trying too hard: white jeans, silver sandals, and a lavender-colored halter,
which she knew worked well with her light green eyes. Baby liked to call it “the wisteria effect.”

Matt rose to greet her, setting his phone facedown on the table.

“It’s nice to see you again,” he said.

He was wearing a navy blazer over a collarless off-white shirt. He pulled out the chair across from him and gently cupped her elbow, guiding her as she sat down. His touch was like an electric spark and she felt it shoot all the way through her.

“Did your phone calls go okay?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, they did, thanks.”

He asked if she wanted to share a bottle of red wine, and she told him, “perfect.” Good girls go to heaven, she thought, but bad girls drink Bordeaux.

“So how did you end up becoming a decorator?” he said after the waiter moved off.

“I got a job as an assistant with the mother of a friend of a friend, and it was love at first sight.” She laughed. “With decorating, I mean, not the mother.”

“You’d never had an inkling before that?”

“I guess I did without putting my finger on it. I was the prop person for all the plays in high school, which I adored. And I have this funny memory of when I was around ten. My mother took me with her to visit her sister one afternoon, and after the two of them went out to the backyard, I felt compelled to rearrange the entire living room. When they came back inside later, they got these utterly terrified looks on their faces, like that scene in
The Sixth Sense
when the mother turns around and every one of the kitchen drawers and cabinets have been yanked open.”

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