LAST DAYS ~ In a nutshell…
A spry elderly woman has died mysteriously in a Florida coastal town, and the head of a clandestine organization in Washington D.C is interested in the case. All evidence, or lack thereof, points to accidental death, but Detective Katerina “Kat” Andruko has nagging doubts. She also has doubts about a mysterious phone call profiler Dimitri Garmonin, PhD, her intended, took and hid from her. ~~ As if that wasn’t enough, Kat’s former fiancé and fellow law enforcement officer gleefully taunts her, predicting the demise of her relationship with Dimitri. Her future mother-in-law thinks she’s less than demure and not suitable marriage material for her son. ~~ Meanwhile, all leads on the elderly woman’s death go nowhere. Old enemies at the local TV station are calling the police incompetent. They air an unfavorable segment about Dimitri. Just as Kat and Dimitri reluctantly begin to believe the death was accidental, the woman’s neighbor goes missing. [Cover Reveal To Come]
Pelican Beach, Florida ~ Mid-March
Det. Katerina “Kat” Andruko
I had to confront Dimitri. If he was serious about making a total commitment to share his life with me, there couldn’t be secrets.
I took the antique pierced earrings he had given me at Thanksgiving out of my jewelry box. Lovely. Alexandrite set in rose gold. They had belonged to his grandmother. Recalling that moment, I still got a magical rush. With this gift, handcrafted nearly a century ago in St. Petersburg, we’d taken a step into a deeper relationship.
Mere moments after giving me the earrings, Dimitri’s phone rang. He turned his back on me and informed the other party I was in the room. The enchanting romance of the moment evaporated, but I let it go. It was Thanksgiving. My sister and her chef Nick Anastos had closed the restaurant and prepared a feast fit for royalty, a family tradition my Larissa proudly kept going. She and Nick ran the Andruko Chophouse, the restaurant my parents started. She, Mari, and I lived in the upstairs apartment.
A knock on my bedroom door jolted me to the present. “Come in.”
The twerp stuck her head in, or should I call her Your Royal Highness Emo-Princess Mari? Her BFF had recently chopped my niece’s lush brunette hair into an uneven chin-length do, if you could call it that. I thought my sister was going to have a cow when she first saw it. The entire head of hair was now dyed purple. “Hey, what’s up? You going out?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’m not on the schedule for a shift today.”
“Oh, thought maybe you were cause you’re holding those fancy earrings. Thought you might have big plans with Dimitri.” She drew out each syllable of his name and offered a self-conscious grin.
“No plans.” I shrugged.
“Mom brought fresh-baked baklava up from the restaurant that Nick just made. Want some?”
“You bet. I’ll be out in a minute.”
“If you don’t hurry, I’ll eat them all. Fair warning.” The door slammed behind her.
I took a last, long look at the earrings, and placed them back inside the jewelry box, then sighed. The holidays had been a whirlwind of merriment, rejoicing, and romance. I’d given Dimitri ample opportunity to explain that mysterious phone call. I’d even tossed out a few leading questions.
“Which he dodged.” Whoa, I surprised myself by stamping my foot as the words blurted out.
Even though it bothered me, I hadn’t found the right time to pin him down. His mother came from New York for Christmas and New Year’s. She was polite as could be but hovered over him displaying etiquette that could only be described as old world.
Then he announced he had a special Valentine’s Day planned. He brought a dozen pink roses and a box of chocolates to the apartment. But that wasn’t the special part. He whisked me away to a Cooking Class for Lovers at the Pelican Beach Hospitality Institute. Along with three other couples, we prepared a fine French meal. It was served to us by a few of their full-time students acting as waiters. And now his birthday was approaching. There would always be something. I had to do what I had to do.
I sighed again and hustled into the kitchen. Mari hadn’t been kidding. She sat at the table, stuffing her face with the honeyed confections.
“Save at least one piece for me.”
She half-stood pushing out her chair. It screeched against the floor as she swallowed the last morsel and licked her fingers. “I gotta go. I’m meeting Ashley.” With that, she rushed out the door. Her sneakers pounded down wooden steps leading to the back door of the restaurant and reserved spaces for family and employees in the parking lot.
Larissa turned from the sink where she’d been washing dishes. “Her behavior has been so much better since the holidays.”
“I don’t want to cast blame, but without Carla’s influence, she and Ashley have grown up a bit in the responsibility department.” Carla had been one of Mari’s closest friends who had not set a good example. She’d been murdered by a serial killer the previous fall.
Larissa dried her hands. “Have you gotten all the arrangements finalized with Mackey for Dimitri’s birthday party?”
“I better have. It’s in three weeks.” I took a quick bite of baklava to hide the frown about to overtake my face.
“And Chef Hote has the menu?”
“Yup.” I took another bite and glanced away from her.
“Did you place a birthday cake order with that Christian baker we want to give business to?” She took a step toward me.
“Yeah, she closed her shop and is running the business from her house. I understand it’s going well for her.”
Larissa nodded once, slowly. “You’ve got the party room booked, decided on a menu, ordered the cake. So, what’s wrong?”
I backed toward the door, grabbed my beige bomber jacket off the pegged coat rack on the wall. “Nothing’s wrong.” With that, I shot out, closed the door behind me, and rushed down the stairs.
Larissa yelled after me, “Now you’re acting like your niece, and that’s not good.”
I climbed into my lightning-blue Ford Fusion, my pride and joy, and sat there for a moment. My heart pounded, and it wasn’t from having run down the steps. If I confronted Dimitri, would it end our relationship just as it was about to begin?
I took a circuitous route to his beach house, wending my way through side streets, as my thoughts roamed to a few not very cozy places. Finally, I pulled into his drive. The house sat across the street from the ocean upon ten-foot-high cinder block pillars. This was to protect it from the highest storm surge after a violent hurricane. I drove under the structure, into his personal carport, and parked next to his white Chevy Tahoe.
I climbed the twenty-five steps to his small porch and front door. I’d counted them more than once. When my heart rate lowered, I rang the bell.
Dimitri answered, wearing a pair of cut-offs and a worn tee. He was barefoot. “Hey, my love, I just made coffee. Want some?” His voice had a slight Russian accent which I found alluring. After he closed the door, he kissed me lightly on the corner of my mouth.
Now, how do I get past that and deliver a one-two-punch ultimatum? Maybe I’d better soften it a bit. I brushed my cheek against his and murmured, “Love you, too, and I’d love a cup.”
The serving and sipping of coffee would give me time to organize my thoughts. I sat and tried to make myself comfortable on the cushioned couch in the open-concept great room.
He brought out two mismatched mugs. One was a Florida Gator’s mug– orange with a gator’s green head on it. The other said: Profilers Do It With Good Behavior. He’d gotten that one via Secret Santa at the department’s Christmas party. The consensus of opinion was Detective. Danny Lee had given it as a gag-gift. Lee shrugged and said, “If you knew, it wouldn’t be Secret Santa, would it?”
Dimitri and I both took our coffee the same way, with a splash of milk, or black on the job if that’s all that was available. I leaned forward, took the profilers cup, and took a sip. “Good coffee, as usual.”
He sat next to me on the couch. “I got it at the Surfside Motel. They started serving their guests Jamaican Blue Mountain roast and are also offering it for sale. I ran over and bought a bag. I get whole beans because, as you know, my favorite part is the coffee maker’s grind-and-brew feature.”
I cleared my throat and shifted my position so my back was straighter. “Dimitri, I want to talk to you about something.”
He was about to take another sip but stopped. “I see.”
I launched right into it and told him I was disturbed about the mystery phone call. “I’ve tossed out quite a few leading questions about this in the last few months, and each time you’ve changed the subject.”
He looked directly at me. “I guess I have. I swear to you on my mother’s life, it has absolutely nothing to do with another woman.”
Dimitri’s mother was precious to him. For him to make that assertion was startling. I took a breath. “I didn’t think it did. I think it’s related to something in the last murder investigation. That Pentagon weapons designer was our prime suspect. Then his assassination was quickly hushed up. It was like he’d never come to town. You and Mackey both disappeared for two days. Then you came back, and both of you acted as if nothing had happened.”
“We took a couple of days off and went to his hunting cabin. Nothing illegal or nefarious.”
“I didn’t know you and he were such good friends, or that you hunt.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “We weren’t terribly good friends. It was spur of the moment, and I do hunt. We’re friends now.”
“You forget, I’ve seen your hunting skills, and I’m not so sure you hunt four-legged, furry creatures.”
He laughed. “You don’t miss much, and that’s why you’re becoming the world’s greatest detective.”
“You’re charming, but that’s silly.” I took another sip of coffee.
He reached out and touched my hand. “During that phone call an elderly gentleman asked me to check on the safety of some people here in town on the down-low. As he requested, I checked once a month over the last three months, and they seemed to be doing fine. End of story.”
“Well, if that’s all it was…”