Dead Man’s Bluff
Chapter 1 – How to Show a Girl a Good Time
Tawny Lindholm struggled to hold a heavy sheet of plywood against the frame of a picture window as intermittent gusts of wind tried to tear it from her hands. Her lover and boss, Tillman Rosenbaum, quickly tacked nails into the top, anchoring the wood enough that Tawny could let go. While he nailed off the four corners, she leaned against the trunk of a foxtail palm and plucked another large splinter from her hand, one of many that had pierced her skin during the past hour of boarding up windows. She flexed aching fingers, arthritis reminding her that she was fifty-one.
Tillman straightened to his towering six-foot-seven and tested the strength of the barrier. “That takes care of the windows. But, hell, Hurricane Irma’s probably going to tear the roof off so why bother?” He wrapped an arm around her and they entered the single-story cinderblock bungalow. He shoved the door closed against a fresh blast of wind and rammed the deadbolt into place.
They stood side by side in front of the air conditioner, letting it cool the sweat dripping from their faces after working in ninety-five-degree heat.
Tawny held her auburn french braid away from her sticky neck and peered up at the dark-haired, lanky lawyer. “You really know how to show a girl a good time. Bring me to Florida with a hurricane on the way.”
A half-smile played across his face. “Can’t think of anyone I’d rather ride out a storm with.” His jaw jutted. “But about this vacation…it’s more work than boarding up windows.
She searched his dark, intense eyes for the secret she’d suspected he was keeping from her. Tillman had a disconcerting habit of dragging her into difficult situations—first with his estranged father, then with his troubled teenage children—without telling her until it was too late to back out. She heaved a sigh. “Not again, Tillman.”
He lifted one broad shoulder. “Smoky needs my help. Can’t stay away from the sports book. He’s a helluva coach but he keeps losing jobs because of gambling. The problem goes way back to when I graduated high school. That’s why he asked me to come down to Florida.”
Tawny huffed with exasperation. “Why can’t you just be honest with me? I’d accept that better than you trying to bribe me with a phony vacation. I wish you wouldn’t treat me like some juror you want to manipulate.”
“You’re right. I’m an asshole.” His scary but sexy gaze melted her every time. “Why do you put up with me?”
She made a face. “Because nobody else will.” She twined fingers through his springy black curls as he bent to kiss her. Soft, warm lips pressed against hers. Lord, the man was annoying but irresistible.
The kitchen door banged shut in the opposite end of the bungalow. Their host, Smoky Lido, clumped into the living room, lugging two cases of Corona. “Tillman, take your tongue out of that nice girl’s throat and go unload the ice from my trunk.”
Tillman released Tawny. “Smoke, you always did have lousy timing.”
“Not fast enough. That’s why I became a coach, not a player.” He set the beer on the dining table. “I’ll never forgive you, son, for not going pro. I’d’ve made millions as your manager. I should be living in a Boca Raton high-rise. Instead I’m stuck in a hovel in New Port Richey. Now, go get the goddamn ice before it melts.”
Tillman winked at Tawny and headed outside.
Smoky adjusted the air conditioner thermostat and flapped the tail of his Hawaiian shirt, a garish pink with orange hibiscus, to unstick it from his damp back. “Gonna be a hot mess when the power gets knocked out.”
“What’s the latest prediction?” Tawny asked.
“Irma’s supposed to hit late tonight. Then we rock and roll.” A grin creased his cauliflower features. He reminded Tawny of a gangster from 1930s movies, thick in the torso, knuckles like walnuts, grizzled sandy-gray hair, deep-water tan. A large emerald stud sparkled in one earlobe. “As long as we don’t run out of beer and propane for the barbecue, we’re fine. We grill steaks as they thaw out in the freezer. We can last for days.”
Tawny was skeptical about Smoky’s optimism. No air conditioning or refrigeration at ninety-five degrees sounded like hell. Tillman’s crack about the roof tearing off didn’t ease her apprehension.
Back home in Montana, she’d endured long power outages during blizzards. She knew how to prepare for a winter emergency—extra firewood, canned food, blankets, and battery-powered lanterns.
A Stage Four hurricane was another story.
Smoky flipped on a ceiling light to brighten the now-gloomy room and studied her. “What’s the matter, darlin’? Your first time, right? Don’t you worry, this ole boy knows how to throw the best damn hurricane party you ever saw.” He cracked open a beer.
Tawny sank onto the turquoise and lime-green cushions of the wicker couch. “Who are you going to invite? Looks like all your neighbors evacuated to shelters.”
“Wimps.” He lowered himself into the matching wicker chair, hitching khaki cargo shorts above his prosthetic leg. “Thanks for pitching in. You’re a good sport. Tillman hit the all-time Powerball with you.”
Tawny smiled at the gnarly older man. Tillman had told her stories of how he’d been a caring substitute father, unlike Tillman’s dad. “What else can we do to get ready?”
“Have a beer, darlin’.”
Getting drunk didn’t sound like the best storm preparation to Tawny. “I’m good, thanks.”
Tillman elbowed through the kitchen door, a twenty-pound sack of ice in each hand. “Where do you want this, Smoke?”
“Chest freezer in the laundry room.”
A second later, Tillman’s deep baritone voice called, “Freezer’s locked.”
Tawny caught a frown skip over Smoky’s features. He heaved himself to his feet. “Never mind, I’ll get it. Come in here and keep your lovely lady company.” He lumbered out of sight.
Tillman joined Tawny on the couch. “Got a line on a generator.” He leaned close, flicking the screen of his phone, and showed her a photo. “Last one in three counties. Up in Hudson.”
“How far is that?” she asked.
“About twenty miles north of here but, with evacuation traffic, it could take a while.”
She frowned. “Is it worth the trip?”
“It will be if the power’s out for long. Might be days or even weeks. At least food will stay cold and we’ll have air conditioning.” He gently touched her nose. “You’re already burned.”
As a lifelong Montanan, Tawny and heat didn’t get along. The brief hour working in Florida humidity had sapped her energy. Even with sunscreen, her pale complexion burned, unlike Tillman’s darker skin, a gift from his African grandmother.
His thumb and index finger expanded the photo. “See, it’s dual fuel—runs on either gasoline or propane. If we run out of gas, we just rob barbecue tanks.”
Smoky returned to the living room, his steps sounding odd because he wore a flip-flop on his foot and a sneaker on his prosthetic. “Went by Wally World this morning. Shelves stripped empty, every department. I get why flashlights and batteries are sold out but curtain rods? Why the hell does anyone need curtain rods right now?” He shook his head. “Only food I saw was a dented can of cat food—giblets and liver. Probably should have bought it.”
Outside, the wind suddenly kicked up, banging tree branches against the house. A volley of sharp cracks rang out.
Tawny and Tillman jumped. “Are those gunshots?” she asked.
Smoky wagged his head. “Acorns. From that big, ancient oak outside. When they hit the metal roof, sounds just like a three-fifty-seven. Scared the living crap out of me until I got used to them. Don’t worry, just an early band moving through. Roars like a dragon one second, then silence so thick your ears pop. The downpour will hit later.”
He clicked on the TV. On the screen, wind and sideways rain whipped a weather reporter crouched against a building as waves crested over a sea wall. “…clocked gusts up to a hundred and forty miles an hour here on Marco Island and the storm surge could impact structures as far as five miles inland.”
The TV went black for a moment, video and audio dead. When it resumed, the camera captured the collapse of a wooden dock at a marina. Massive waves smashed boards into kindling. Pleasure boats tossed and collided in jumbled wreckage.
Tawny sank her fingernails into the bright cushion. “How far away is that?”
Smoky said, “More than a hundred and fifty miles south.”
Tillman rose. “Told the guy with the generator that I’d duke him an extra hundred if he held it for me. I better head for Hudson now.”
Tawny stood, panic washing over her. “Tillman? Don’t go. This is crazy.”
He fingered her braid. “When we’re sitting here in air-conditioned comfort with ice-cold beer, while the rest of Florida swelters without electricity, you’ll thank me.” He jerked his chin at Smoky. “Give me your keys.”
The old coach dug in his pocket and tossed them across the coffee table to Tillman. “Tank’s three-quarters full. Got the last drop of gas at the Wawa station before they ran out. Heard from a trucker that it’s bone dry all the way to Ocala.”
Tawny bit her lip as she and Smoky followed Tillman to the kitchen door.
“Got a spare pistol?” Tillman asked.
Smoky looked sheepish. “You know that would violate my parole.”
Tillman gave him a hard stare. “This is a privileged, confidential communication with your attorney.”
Smoky grinned, disappeared into his bedroom, and emerged a moment later with a .380 Beretta that he offered to Tillman.
The small pistol disappeared in Tillman’s big palm. “You got anything else here for protection?” He gestured toward Tawny. “She’s good with a gun, too. Better than I am.”
Smoky winked at her. “Beauty and skill. What a combination.” He tipped his head toward his bedroom. “Got an old twelve-gauge.”
They went outside to the two-stall carport where, as Smoky had predicted, the wind had died down. Tillman awkwardly folded his long legs into Smoky’s little aqua retro Thunderbird convertible. Earlier, they had to remove the hard top when they discovered Tillman was too tall to sit in the car with the roof on.
Tawny bent to kiss him, her heart clenched in a knot. “Come back to me safe.”
His offhand tone didn’t reassure her. He started the engine and backed out onto the deserted street, dodging fallen palm fronds that littered the pavement.
As the T-bird disappeared around a corner, Smoky squeezed her arm. “He’ll be fine. Nothing stops him.”
Tawny sighed. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
If you enjoyed this sneak preview, Dead Man’s Bluff will be available in ebook and paperback June 23, 2020! Special pre-order price only $.99. Order now for delivery on June 23.