Excerpt from There's Something About You
Book #5 of the Miracle Falls Series
Sunshine Dehl had never contacted a PI agency, let alone visited one, until now. The front office of Trevor Holmes Private Investigators was clean and neat, with its business license posted prominently on the wall. A forty-something male in a pullover sweater and jeans sat at the desk squinting at his computer.
He greeted her with a smile. “Morning. How can I help you?”
“You must be Trevor,” she said and returned the smile. “I’m Sunshine Dehl, here for my appointment.”
“I’m not Trevor. I’m Matt, and I manage this place. I’ll let him know you’re here. If you want to hang up your coat…” He gestured at a somewhat crowded coat tree and made the call.
By the time Sunshine shrugged out of her lightweight trench and hung it there, Trevor Holmes entered from a hallway behind Matt’s desk. At the sight of him, she sucked in a sharp breath. She’d never expected this, was stunned to see him here in Miracle Falls, and not at all sure she liked that. Even if she did think about him a lot. After the one unforgettable night they’d spent together in Cabo more than a year ago, the man and everything they’d shared was permanently engraved in her brain.
Careful not to reveal a hint of the anguish suddenly welling up inside, she forced a calm voice. “It’s you.”
For an instant, he seemed equally taken aback. Then he broke into the slightly lopsided grin she remembered. The sexy mouth that did such clever things.
“Small world,” he said. “If you’ll wait here a minute, I’ll be right back.”
She nodded, sat down in a chair, and thumbed absently through a copy of PI Magazine while the whole experience and the aftermath flooded back. The best sex in her life. The conversation before they’d fallen into bed. She wasn’t on the pill. He didn’t want some kid knocking on his door down the road claiming to be his. She’d been one hundred percent onboard with that.
He had condoms, a whole box of them. They’d been careful every time.
Yet something had gone wrong, she’d discovered six weeks later after taking two pregnancy tests, both indicating she was pregnant. A big surprise, and not in a good way. She wanted children someday, but not now, especially with the one-night lover she’d never see again and had no way to reach with the unwanted news. This was what happened when she deviated from the life she’d planned for herself.
For a day or two she’d considered getting an abortion. Then had changed her mind and decided she wanted this baby-to-be. After all, she was twenty-nine and not even dating, let alone close to getting married. Her life plan included marriage by age thirty and starting a family of her own, etcetera, but as yet reaching those goals had eluded her.
The embryo growing inside her didn’t care.
An unexpected baby wasn’t deviating from the plan, she’d reasoned, just rearranging things a bit. Raising a child without a partner wouldn’t be easy—she knew this from the single woman who’d raised her. Growing up without a father was no fun either. Although she’d turned out well enough. So would her baby. A baby! Until that moment, she’d never realized how deeply she longed for this.
Needing to sit with her decision and not ready to share the joyous news until she was sure everything was okay, she’d kept the secret locked in her heart. A few weeks later, she’d awakened with horrendous cramps. A miscarriage. On a Sunday morning, the very day she’d planned to tell her sisters Dahlia and Starr, and Mama J, the woman who’d raised the three of them after their mother had passed away.
Both relieved and devastated, she’d wiped her brow—phew—and then sobbed her heart out. To this day, she’d kept the secret and hidden her grief from everyone except Anita, her best friend and the sole person in the world who was privy to what’d happened that night. Only because she’d been with Sunshine in Cabo, two besties in need of a break from their respective jobs.
It’d taken months, but at last she’d put the whole thing behind her and continued on with her plans to grow her business and start a serious search for her Mr. Right. But work took up most of her time, and she couldn’t seem to get motivated about meeting someone.
Trevor returned to the front office. “You’re reading my favorite magazine. All ready for you now.”
She followed him, admiring his long legs and broad shoulders despite herself. In his office, a reasonably tidy space with filing cabinets, computers, and another notice of certification on the wall, she sat across his desk. For a minute, they simply studied each other. “So your real name is Trevor, not TR.” She hadn’t expected that, but then she hadn’t used her real first name either.
“Way back when, a few guys called me that, but rarely anymore. The R is for my middle name, Rhodes. Should I call you Sunshine or Sunny?”
“Please, not the short version.” She grimaced. “I haven’t used it since second grade.”
“If you don’t like it, why did you tell me it was your name?”
“That’s what came out of my mouth when we first met. It was impulsive.” The entire experience had been.
“That was some night,” he said, his intent, blue-green eyed gaze burning her, making her feel restless and hungry, things she didn’t want to feel. Deeper inside, sorrow for what she’d lost bubbled up. “I thought about you for months and was sorry we’d agreed not to exchange any personal information.”
For the entire night, they’d stuck to that agreement. But they’d exchanged quite a bit of non-verbal information about each other in his hotel room bed. Her cheeks warmed, and she knew she was blushing. With her fair skin, she did that a lot. “We both agreed that we wanted just the one night,” she reminded him.
Early the next morning, she’d tiptoed out of his room to pack and catch the flight home with Anita. “I’d never done that before, met a man and mere hours later spent the night in his room.” She hadn’t had sex in such a long time, and the chemistry between them had been too powerful to resist. Making love with a man so attentive to her needs was unlike anything she’d known, hot and all-consuming and addictive. She wasn’t sorry about that, only what had followed later.
“I had no idea you had a business in Miracle Falls. I haven’t seen you in town, and this is a pretty small place.”
“At seven-thousand plus, it’s not that small.”
Could she work with the man she’d shared such an intimate night with and still dreamed about whether she wanted to or not? After suffering through so much a few months later and struggling for more than a year to put it behind her? She would’ve preferred not to, but she didn’t have much choice—private investigators in Miracle Falls were far and few between, and he’d come highly recommended. She needed help, his help. Soon. Now.
“When we met in Cabo, I lived in San Francisco and was a few months away from moving here. I opened my doors about nine months ago.”
Why would he relocate from a bustling city with plenty of opportunity for a private investigator to a small town? She wanted to ask, but wasn’t about to open the door to personal questions about the aftermath of her life since that night. She’d checked his website and reviews before hiring him. Now she made a mental note to look into his background via social media. “This has been my home since I was born.”
“It’s a great town. My mom and stepfather live here. Jeannie and Ellis Bloom. They own the—”
“Welcome Inn,” Sunshine finished. “I’m familiar with it. It’s one of my favorite local B &Bs. Some of my clients stay there when they’re in town. I know your parents. They’re nice people.”
“Talk about a coincidence. Clients?”
“No, but I owe them for sending business my way. I own Nourish Spa and Cosmetics.” She straightened her shoulders with pride. “I’m here about a problem at the spa that I can’t solve.”
“You’ve come to the right place. I’ve heard my folks talk about Nourish. There’s a poster at the inn and brochures in the rack on the wall. You must be good at your work. Do people travel here just to use your spa?”
“They come because this is a great place to vacation. Then they hear about Nourish and want to try it.”
He nodded. “Do you have family here too?”
“One sister and the woman who raised us.”
“Good to know,” he said, his eyes bright with interest. “Before we get into the problem that brought you here, I’d like to know how you found us.”
“My sister, Dahlia, and her partner, Jake Palladino, recommended you.” Sunshine decided it was time to tell Dahlia about Cabo, but not the baby. That was in the past, and there was no reason to dredge it up with anyone. Besides, it was still too painful to talk about. What mattered was that she was on solid footing up the path to success.
“That’s your sister, huh.” Trevor shook his head. “Should’ve known by the last name. Not long after I got settled in town, I hired her and Jake to do some PR for my firm. They did at great job.”
“They’re very good at what they do.” Sunshine was ready to talk about the situation now. Almost. “What I tell you is confidential, right?” If the information leaked out… She’d worked too hard to look like the fool she felt. Now that she’d confided to the handful of people she most trusted—Anita, both sisters, Jake who was Dahlia’s boyfriend and like family, and Mama J. The spa’s accountant, Claudine, was also aware of Sunshine’s concerns, but had no idea she’d decided to hire outside help.
“Make no mistake, confidentiality is essential to my business. Be aware though, that depending on the situation I might need to work with the police or call in someone from outside the firm.” He raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting for her okay.
“You’d have to run that by me first.”
“Of course. Before we get into the details, I want to go over a few rules of my own.”
His expression suddenly somber, he looked her straight in the eyes. Not a hint of that mesmerizing warmth now. Something about his probing gaze made her uneasy, and she wondered if he’d somehow guessed she had sad information that involved him. But that was impossible. She thought about mentioning it, but this long after the fact it didn’t seem relevant. Besides, she didn’t want to cry and was afraid she might.
Somehow, she managed to maintain eye contact and at the same time shove that part of her past from her mind. “This isn’t in the contract, but I want you to know up front that I make it a rule not to mix pleasure with work,” he said. “No matter how strongly attracted I am to you.”
The pledge made her feel safe. Her respect for him skyrocketed and increased her attraction to him. An unwanted feeling she also stuffed deep inside. “I’m with you on that. What happened in Cabo can’t happen again.”
He released a breath as if he’d been holding on to it. “We’re in agreement then, like we were that night.”
The shared relief between them felt like a connection Sunshine didn’t understand and didn’t want to explore.
Trevor slid a document across the desk toward her. “This is our standard contract. You’ll notice that I charge an hourly rate plus expenses, and that I expect a retainer up front.”
He wasn’t cheap, but she needed him to figure out the cause of whatever was bleeding her of income. “All right.”
“I’ll be taking notes today. If you want copies, let me know.” She nodded, and he opened his laptop. “Let’s talk about what brought you here.”
Sunshine moved around in her chair and absently finger-combed her hair. Trevor figured she was nervous and didn’t trust him enough to explain the troubles at the spa. He needed her trust. Otherwise, this wasn’t going to work.
He really wanted this job and was confident he could get to the bottom of whatever the problems turned out to be. Thanks to their awesome marketing plan, Dahlia and Jake had jumpstarted his business. Most of it with corporations in town. While corporate work was great, he wanted a toehold in the small business sector too. Solving the issues at Nourish Spa and getting a decent review from Sunshine should help him in that arena.
They’d already discussed confidentiality and his hands-off policy to not get personally involved, so that didn’t seem to be the issue. No, there was something else. From the way she bit her lip and the salmon pink color that suddenly flared in her cheeks, opening up was difficult for her. She’d flushed the same way when they’d brought up Cabo earlier.
Not so different from when she was aroused, and on more than her face. Everywhere. He shut down the thought. No way was he letting desire interfere with the investigation. He’d broken that rule once and had lost his objectivity, almost destroying his career. Almost? His reputation had tanked for two painful years. Since then, he’d become an expert at compartmentalizing. The night in Cabo had been a much-needed reprieve from his troubles, but had nothing to do with this case.
He locked those feelings away where they wouldn’t get him into trouble. Much better. “I need to know why you’re nervous about this.”
She seemed surprised. “You’re right, I am. My compliments to you and your people-reading skills. Not many can read me. I’m used to solving my own problems, so this is hard for me.”
Reading others wasn’t difficult if you knew what to look for. Tenacity and noticing little details that went unseen, plus a gut that rarely steered him wrong made for solid investigative work.
Independence and self-reliance were important to her, another trait they had in common. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a coffee,” he said, assuming she’d get there when she was ready. “We get our beans from Lolli’s custom brand. It’s good stuff. I’ll ask Matt to bring us a couple of mugs. How do you take yours?”
“With a dash of cream or milk.”
“I should mention that we’re a small and growing company,” he added while they waited for their coffees. “Most of my work has been with corporations and larger companies, but I’m looking to expand to smaller businesses like yours. I want you to know that while I do intake and oversee all cases, my staffers do most of the day-to-day work. They’re highly trained investigators capable of working on pretty much any problem.”
She frowned. “You won’t be handling this?”
Not about to foist the job off on anyone else, though he couldn’t have said why, he shook his head. “With your case, yes, I plan to be involved along with my staff.”
He changed the subject, telling her how much he enjoyed the hiking in the area. That got her talking about the foothills and trails that seemed in abundance at Miracle Falls Park with its one hundred-fifty acres of trails, and the wilder terrain in the Cascade foothills south of town. “The local meetup hiking group has been great for that,” he said. “Are you a hiker?”
“I work out at a gym, but the only hiking I do is when I walk from one shop to another.”
“I’d rather have a cavity filled than shop,” he muttered, and she almost laughed. By the time Matt delivered the mugs she seemed much more relaxed.
“Lolli’s coffee is so good,” she said. “A little history about Nourish Spa. I opened the doors six years ago. From the beginning, we were popular. Adding essential oils and my own line of cosmetics seemed a natural fit. Like your business, mine is growing. When I need to, I hire more staff.”
“How many people do you currently employ, and what are their jobs?” he asked while he recorded notes on the computer.
“It’s a full-service spa, meaning we offer massages and do other body work—facials, nails, and hair. Counting me, there are eighteen regulars. Those who don’t offer services work the front desk and handle bookings and payment transactions. We also have a small receiving and shipping department, and the accountant I mentioned. We contract with a janitorial service and a commercial laundry. That’s it.”
Trevor nodded. “What’s your turnover rate?”
“Minimal. Most of the staff have been with me for a while. Claudine, the accountant, has been with me the longest, since day one.” She let out a sigh. “I’d hoped she could help figure out the cause of the money drain and asked if she’d noticed any issues. She hasn’t, but she offered to work late and look for mistakes. I told her not to. Why waste her time when this is obviously beyond her skill set.”
“How often are your books audited?”
“Once a year, at the end of the fiscal year. That’s in February.”
“So the most recent audit was roughly eight months ago.”
“Yes, and nothing unusual came up. Yet here we are, bleeding money. I wish I knew the cause. I’ve always made a decent living and paid the bills with no problem. Not so much anymore.” Sunshine let out a sigh. “Business is as brisk as ever, but our bottom line doesn’t reflect that. I didn’t even realize we had a problem till this year. I don’t look at the books except every now and then.
“Paying the bills has become a struggle,” she added. “We’ve had some bounced checks. I’m lucky the bank is willing to cover them for me, but I’m embarrassed and the expensive fees hurt the bottom line even more.”
“I realize you don’t know the cause of the problem, but if you had to guess, what do you think it might be?”
She gave her head a grave shake. “I wish I knew.”
“Do you think one of your employees is taking money from the cash registers?”
“We keep a limited amount of cash on hand, as most customers use credit cards to pay for products and services. Occasionally it doesn’t balance but not enough to cause any real problems. I can’t imagine anyone stealing. From the beginning, I’ve worked hard to cultivate loyalty with my staff, and they’re paid well for the work they do. Years ago, when I was an esthetician at a spa across town, I knew I wanted a business of my own. I took classes and mapped out the steps I needed to take to reach my goal. Without the plan, I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have.”
“Tell me about what you do on a daily basis.”
“I set goals and make to-do lists that I review at the start of the day. Sometimes I work six days a week. Not always at the spa. I also create new products.”
She beamed with pride. Definitely Type A. If Trevor hadn’t spent a night with her, he wouldn’t recognize her. “What about time off?”
“You know what they say—do what you love and you’ll never work a day. I don’t mind working long hours.” He noted the raised chin and straight back and wondered if he’d touched a sore spot. “Do you ever kick back and have fun, or was that night in Cabo a fluke?”
“I was on vacation, my first in years. And look what happened.” Her face flushed.
“Something happened, all right, especially on that last night at the resort. You and me. We had a great time.”
She glanced down as if avoiding his gaze. “Back to my staff. I trust them, and they seem happy. Otherwise, they’d leave.”
“Have you hired anyone new lately?”
“Not in the last ten months or so. The losses don’t make any sense.”
Trevor nodded. “Unfortunately, this is a problem we see all too often. I’d like to take a look around and find out how the business works. Let’s meet at the spa after hours. You can show me the ropes and answer any questions that come up. We’ll go from there.”
“As long as none of my employees know about this.”
“Your accountant knows—you mentioned your concerns and asked to look at the books.”
“I do that just because. As I said, the problem, whatever it is, is out of her realm. I haven’t mentioned it lately. I don’t want her to think I don’t trust her, not after the years we’ve been together.”
“Keep her from getting suspicious. That’s smart.”
“Oh, and before I forget, at the end of each quarter we do inventory, where we count all the products and determine what to reorder. Nothing seems out of the ordinary there either.”
“We’ll need to know about the inventory process—who does the work and who orders more product.”
“I’m happy to explain it.”
He nodded. “I want to put one of my staffers at the spa during daytime working hours. Fern is young and friendly and a pro at collecting information undercover. I suggest you hire her to work at the spa while she does intel.”
Looking thoughtful, Sunshine tapped her finger to her lips. “I could use someone to fill in at the sales desk and help book appointments.” She frowned. “Does Fern know anything about spas?”
“She’s gone the receptionist and sales routes before. Ask one of your employees to show her the ropes. With her help, I’m confident we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“I really hope so.”
With her expression open and expectant, Sunshine was hard to resist. “What are you looking at?” she asked, small frown lines on her normally smooth brow.
“Your mouth.” Hadn’t meant to say that, but the words spilled out. He pulled the standard form he used with all clients from his desk. “If you’ll sign the contract and pay the retainer, I’ll get to work. I can start as soon as tomorrow night after I leave here.”
“Perfect—as it so happens, we close at six on Thursdays. The cleaning crew doesn’t arrive till around eleven.”
“Let’s meet there at seven, which gives us time to look around and install surveillance cameras. I’ll bring Fern with me. Do you want any of these notes?”
“I don’t think so.”
They both signed the contract and Sunshine paid the retainer. Trevor walked her out front, where Matt handed her a copy of the signed contract. Her peppermint scent lingered in the air.
Since Cabo, the smell was permanently imprinted in his brain. Like a Pavlovian dog, his body started to react. Jaw clamped, he shut it down and returned to his office.