That creep had grabbed my ass for the last time.
I raised the clipboard in my hands up over my head— ready to smash it down on the booty grabber’s cranium—when Marcy Regan snuck up behind me and snatched my makeshift weapon out of my hands.
“Don’t, Jackie. He’ll file an assault charge.”
“Then I’ll file a sexual harassment charge.” I seethed.
“Think of the paperwork,” Marcy hissed. “And the lawyers.”
It was not an idle observation. Marcy worked for the Miami-Dade County Clerk and she spent her days up to her eyeballs in paperwork. And I was currently employed by Stan Cunningham, the ass grabbing lawyer. Neither of us wanted to bring the job home with us.
Ugh. She was right, I knew it but as I stared at my still smirking boss seated behind his ostentatious mahogany desk, I wanted him to suffer. Boils and sores were too good for this hump. “Dude, what part of ‘I’m married so keep your paws to yourself,’ don’t you understand?”
His face went blank “I didn’t do anything.”
As I stared into his doughy face, one thing became clear. No job was worth such crap, especially not the peanuts I’d been paid.
“Give me the clipboard, Marcy.” My voice remained steady.
“What are you going to do with it?” Her tone was wary, but she handed it over.
I flipped over the case we’d been going over, scrawled I quit, you big tool, and dropped it on his desk. Terminating my employment on a notice of termination—how appropriate. “Cough up what you owe me or I’ll send my husband. With his whole marine platoon.” Their version of collecting was of the turn your head and cough variety. I doubted the pervert liked them apples.
The smarmy grin slid right off Stan the Shyster’s face. “Take it out of petty cash.”
“Gladly.” After backing away slowly, I pivoted on my heel and made for the front office, cleared out the petty cash and moved to the glass door.
I gestured to Marcy. “Let’s go, lunch is on me.”
We headed down to our favorite little Panini cafe where I ordered a Piña Colada the size of a fishbowl—a reward for my restraint. Though I offered one to Marcy as well, she declined. “I have to go back to work.”
“I’ll make it up to you to you this weekend.” I owed her, big time. If I had hit Stan the Stain and he took me to court, I could’ve lost my process serving certificate. Then I’d really be out of luck.
I slid my oversized sunglasses up and took in the scenery. A cloudless blue sky, palm trees swaying hither and yon. Pedestrians in micro dresses, short-shorts and swimsuits strolled by. Oh to be able to loll around and enjoy the sea breeze.
“So, what are you going to do now?” Marcy took a delicate bite of her mozzarella and tomato Panini.
“Tell Luke I quit. After I throw him a bang, of course.” My husband was always so much more agreeable while basking in post-coital bliss.
“Did he find a job yet?”
“He’s doing security with his brother.”
Marcy’s big blue eyes got even bigger. “Logan’s back? Why didn’t you tell me?” She fanned herself. Apparently, the wind off the water wasn’t enough to contend with heated thoughts of my brother-in-law.
“Sorry, I didn’t think you cared.” The lie scalded my throat. Truth was, I’d done my best not to think about Logan Parker for the six years Luke and I had been married.
“He’s the hottest guy on the face of the planet.” Marcy fluffed her blonde hair as though just mentioning the Devil’s name would draw his notice. “Is he seeing anybody?”
“A therapist, I hope.” I drained my drink. “I should get home. Do a little feminine maintenance before I break the big news.”
Marcy grinned. “Or you could look for another job.”
“Oh, you and your zany ideas.” The thought of going to work for another sleazy lawyer made my skin crawl. We had some money saved up and I could afford to take a little while and really consider my options.
I left Marcy outside the county clerk’s office and hailed a cab. Last thing I needed was a DUI. Luke was gonna be upset already.
Not with me though, never with me. My husband didn’t think the sun rose until I got out of bed in the morning. No, the censure would be totally focused inward. On himself for being unable to land a permanent job post-military. Luke was old-fashioned—he wanted to support me, not the other way around.
Stubborn Parker men. My brain shied away from thoughts of Logan, hoping to God that Luke wouldn’t drag him home for a beer after work. Not only did I not want to see him, I didn’t want to compound Luke’s humiliation by fessing up about the grabby attorney in front of his brother’s hawk-like stare.
To my surprise, Luke’s big black truck was parked in front of our little bungalow in the neighborhood known as Coral Gate on the west end of the city. The house was 1920’s era that had been remodeled hideously in the 1950s and again in Technicolor in the ’70s. We were slowly upgrading it with a more modern color scheme while restoring the historic appeal. After paying the cab driver, I made my way up the cracked concrete walkway and followed the sound of hammering around the side of the house.
Luke stood there with his shirt off, golden sweat-slicked muscles gleaming in the sun. His dark hair was damp, pushed back away from his face, having grown out since his last tour of duty ended. My heart sped at the sight of him and I wrapped my arms around him from behind, pressing my body into his. “Hey there, sexy.”
Instead of hugging me back, he stiffened instantly, muscles freezing into granite. He looked over his shoulder. Piercing blue eyes, not the expected melty chocolate I loved, stared down at me. “Jacqueline.”
Logan. “Holy Mary and a bag of chips, sorry! Sorry!” I let him go instantly, but the damage was already done. Stupid, delicious rum-based drink had impaired my judgment. Crap on a cracker, could this day get any worse? “I thought you were Luke.”
“Obviously.” His gaze dipped from my face down to my chest. “That’s a nice look.”
Huh? Glancing down my body I saw that the cream-colored shell top was now plastered to my chest thanks to his manly sweat saturating the fabric. I plucked it away from my skin, flustered beyond belief. “Friggin hell, I want a do-over for today.”
“If only I had that power.” There was censure in Logan’s deep tone. Censure and regret.
My gaze flew to his, my heart pounding like it wanted out of my ribcage. Oh no, he was not going there, not when I was half-drunk and fully freaked out.
“Hey babe, thought I heard you.” Luke moved out onto the verandah. He was also shirtless and sweating, a reprieve for my reeling senses. My safe harbor.
From the front, he and Logan were similar in both height and build, but Luke was rangier, designed for speed more than heavy lifting. His smile was the most welcoming sight.
Brushing past Logan, I moved up the steps to press myself against my man and he pulled me into the safety of his arms.
“You smell like rum.” He laughed and kissed the top of my head. “And did I see a cab drop you off? Something wrong with your car?”
“I quit my job.” Frick, there went my awesome seduction to help breaking the news plan. I cast Logan a dark look. It was his fault for throwing me off balance.
Luke rubbed my back in a soothing motion. “And the rum?”
Since I’d already spilled the beans…. “I got blitzed on a giant Piña colada after I cleared out the petty cash. Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Before I knew I was destined to humiliate myself in front of Logan.
Again. Why did I always end up running into him when I had a snoot-full?
“Looks like you’ve got stuff to deal with, man. I’m gonna take off,” the Dark Prince intoned.
I sagged, but my relief was premature because Luke said, “Hang on a second. This could be a good thing.”
As far as I could tell, the only good thing had been the booze and that was long gone. I pulled back to study his face. “What do you mean?”
He grinned, that boyishly charming grin that had snagged my heart at first sight. “Come inside and we’ll hash it out. It’s hot out here. Logan, you want a beer?”
“No.” Logan’s tone was emphatic and I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about the beer.
“Dude, she’s qualified and she knows everyone. Where are we going to find—?”
“I said no.” A muscle jumped in Logan’s jaw.
I glanced between the brothers and worried my lower lip. “What are we talking about here?”
Luke looked down at me. “Logan and I were thinking of going into business for ourselves.”
“Like your own property management company?” The work Luke had been doing was of the odd jobs, thankless part-time variety and I knew it didn’t make him happy, that he wanted to do something he felt was important.
“Right. We’d try to strike a deal with the tenants without legal intervention. It’s less expensive for all parties involved.”
Which meant less work for guys like Shyster Stan. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
“But we need a certified process server on board, someone who knows the county laws and could make sure we stay on the right side of them. Who can serve the papers on behalf of the owner if necessary and can legally write notices for eviction. We were going to look for somebody else, but since you’re free….” He tossed me a wink.
“Wow.” I blinked from more than just the harsh sunlight. “I don’t know what to say.” This could be a really good thing. With Luke in the military, I’d barely seen him. If we went down this road, we would work side by side on something that mattered to us both.
Plus there was no shortage of work. With the housing market hit hard in Florida, properties stood empty and owners were constantly searching for property management teams to take care of messy situations. Ousting squatters, collecting past due rent, stopping unlawful activity and, when necessary, streamlining Florida’s complicated eviction process to rerent the property to decent tenants as soon as legally possible. It was hard, often thankless work but I knew how to make sure that all the i’s were dotted, the t’s were crossed so anyone who hired us wouldn’t end up with a giant lawsuit on their hands.
“Luke,” Logan’s tone held a warning. “It isn’t safe. Are you really willing to put her in harm’s way?”
I turned to face my brother-in-law. The living, breathing downside to this seemingly awesome plan. If working with Luke was a dream then working with Logan was a nightmare. Were his objections really about my safety or did he just want to nix the idea before it took root? “I’ve served in that capacity before, at the sheriff’s office. Luke’s right, no one knows the eviction process in this county better than me, at least not in the private sector.”
“We could take on Aaron’s job. Go there tonight and see what’s what. He owns near half the damn county and if he likes our work, he’ll recommend us.” Luke was like a little kid in a toy store, his enthusiasm contagious, at least for me.
I hadn’t heard him so hopeful for the future in a long time. Turning toward Logan, I made up my mind then and there that I would do everything in my power to help him make this dream a reality.
Logan and I would just have to deal with each other. Be professionally courteous. We were adults, we could handle it and we would if I had anything to say about it.
If not he could take a long walk off a short pier.
“I’m in.” I said. Luke squeezed me and Logan looked like he’d chewed on a fresh turd.
For better or worse, I had a new job.
Aaron Tanner was a marine who’d gone through boot camp with Luke. After serving out one tour, he’d inherited his father’s condo complex in South Beach and left the military to be a full-time landlord. According to the file Luke had given me, Aaron’s tenant, a Mr. Fester Gomez, was three months behind in his rent.
The eviction process is complex in any state, but Florida had its own special quirks. The laws were written to protect tenant rights before those of the property owner. Knowing what I do about the eviction process, I’d rather stick a hot poker in my eye or spend ten minutes locked in a closet with Logan, than ever choose to be a landlord.
As Luke drove over the MacArthur Causeway, I read the file out loud. “Fester Gomez, Caucasian, age sixty-three, widower. Lived here for ten years, never had a late payment before. Aaron wants us to talk with him, inspect the property for damages if he’ll let us and find out why he’s not paying his rent.”
“And if he doesn’t let us?” Luke asked.
“I’ll post a twenty-four-hour inspection notice and we’ll go in tomorrow.”
“You’ll stay in the car.” Logan didn’t phrase it as a request and I didn’t appreciate his tone.
“I’m going in. Mr. Gomez has no criminal record, he’s not a threat. Besides, if you two scary guys knock on his door and give him a heart attack, Aaron might get sued. Then we’re SOL.”
“Jackie’s right, Logan. We’re just going to talk this out. Aaron doesn’t want to go through the trouble of eviction if there are any other options.”
From my position in the back, I saw Logan shift, so I was prepared when he pivoted to glare at me. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
“Broke that habit years ago.” The passive-aggression was so dense you could eat it with a spork. I saw the instant the barb struck home. His eyes narrowed to blue slits. I raised an eyebrow, daring him to take it further.
“Knock it off you two. We’re almost there.” That from Luke, the peacemaker of our little trio, who multitasked brilliantly as he turned the truck onto Ocean Drive.
He stopped the vehicle near a pristine white stucco apartment complex. I whistled low as I stepped out of the car. “Hot damn, you think Aaron would rent to us? I always wanted to live near the beach.”
“We couldn’t afford it,” Luke said, sending me a rueful smile. “Maybe in a few years, if this business works out.”
Logan remained quiet, assessing our surroundings.
We trooped across the street and into the breezeway, stopping at the door to 1C. I held my clipboard with the 3- Day notice all filled out, should Mr. Gomez not provide an adequate reason why he’d been skipping his rent. Luke and I exchanged a glance, he nodded, and I knocked on the door, going over the spiel I had in mind.
A spiel, I didn’t need because the unlatched door creaked open ominously. “Uh oh.”
“Get back,” Logan snarled, shoving me behind him and several steps to the side. I didn’t protest the rough treatment because my nose had picked up the same stench that had put him on high alert. Something that reeked like death.
“I’m going in,” Logan said.
“Don’t be an idiot.” Luke grabbed for his brother’s shoulder but Logan shrugged him off.
“If whatever’s in there is still alive, it needs help. Get her back to the car.” Logan barreled forward like a freight train.
“Idiot,” Luke growled. “Jackie, go back to the car. Call 911. Tell them what’s going on.”
Luke shoved his cell phone at me and I fumbled it. “You don’t know what’s in there.”
“Logan’s in there,” he said simply and disappeared into the place.
Well, the Parker brothers might be big, tough heroes but I sure as hell didn’t want to see what was making that smell. Week-old garbage rotting in a Dumpster was more appetizing. I couldn’t just go lock myself in the car though. What if they needed help?
I dialed the phone and gave the 911 operator the address. “Probable DOA. My husband and his brother have gone in to check on the resident.”
“Do you require an ambulance?”
Considering Mr. Gomez’s rent was three months late, I seriously doubted it. Still, I called out, “Luke? Is there anyone alive in there?”
It was Logan who appeared, his T-shirt pulled up to cover his mouth and nose. “Whoever did this is long gone.”
I was craning past him, looking for Luke. “Did what?”
Sirens blared in the distance, announcing help was on the way.
“Luke, get out here!” Logan called, shoving me back into the breezeway. “Put your hands up so the cops can see them.”
“Ma’am? Are you there?” The 911 operator’s voice crackled over my line.
Luke slipped through the door, face ghostly pale as his eyes met mine. He’d seen his share of dead bodies and I doubt discovering Mr. Gomez had passed peacefully in his sleep would have brought on that kind of reaction.
Logan and Luke exchanged a look and I knew Logan didn’t want to tell me, the jerk, while Luke couldn’t see any way to avoid it.
“It’s not Gomez.”
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