“Well, you can’t say I never send you anywhere interesting,” Padraig said.
Jil grabbed her latte off the bar and followed Padraig out the door to the coffee shop. The wind caught her scarf, and she shoved it back into the collar of her black trench coat.
For April, the weather was still cool and windy, but the sun was trying to shine, at least, and after six months of bleak gray snow, she was happy for that slight glimmer of light.
Padraig stopped on the street corner and pressed the walk button, then took off the lid to his black coffee and tossed it in the garbage can. “Don’t know why the hell they put those damn lids on. Coffee never cools down.”
Jil took a careful sip of her latte. She knew exactly why they put lids on. To keep people like her from sloshing their drinks all down their clothes. They made a turn, directly into a wind tunnel. And there it was, the April wind that felt like ice shards on her face. She wished he would just turn around and go back to the office.
Padraig turned to look at her while they waited for the light to turn. He looked pleased with himself.
“Out with it,” Jil demanded.
“St. Emeline.” Padraig beamed.
Jil frowned. “Where is that?”
“Just north of Curacao, below St. Martin. It’s a pretty little island. You’ll enjoy it, I think.”
A wind gust kicked up, and she shivered despite the sun. Maybe heading south wouldn’t be so bad.
“Someone from the Caribbean hired us? Why?”
Padraig smiled even wider. “Well, first of all, she doesn’t trust the gendarme in St. Emeline. Apparently, there’s some sort of conflict of interest there. You’ll have to get the details yourself. And secondly, she’s Canadian. From Rockford originally. She owns a sea aquarium on St. Emeline.”
“I’ve never even heard of St. Emeline.”
The light changed and Padraig began walking. “That’s because you’re living a sheltered life, Kidd. You need to travel more. Break out.”
Jil snorted. “Oh, I forgot I was speaking to the ultimate globetrotter. When was the last time you even took a vacation?”
People crushed past them, and Jil almost lost her latte. It splashed around in her cup, bubbling up through the hole in the lid Padraig had eschewed, and streamed down her wrist. Her hands were so cold that she didn’t really mind, but it would be sticky as hell once it cooled.
Padraig barreled on, unaware. When they got to the other side of the intersection, he kept walking, straight to the park. Usually Padraig could be counted on for a sit-down and a pint, not a power stroll through an icy street.
“It’s technically not a vacation if you’re solving a case.”
“Maybe we could just sit down?”
Padraig finally looked at her, noticing the creamy froth dripping from her wrist.
“Sorry, Kidd.” Hastily, he mopped at her hand with a crumpled napkin he took from his pocket. “Bench. Three o’clock.”
He guided her to a fountain in Rockford’s Coronation Park—a large circular basin with a concrete carving of an Inuit seal hunt erupting from the center.
Jil flashed back to her last case where she’d sat in this very spot and watched a jewel thief hand off her foster mother’s emerald ring into the bottom of the empty fountain.
The fountain had been filled now in preparation for spring. The water flowed almost to the top.
Jil grabbed his elbow and stopped him from sitting in a splash of water on the stone bench. He moved over three spots and sat down, shaking his head.
“Why aren’t you going yourself, then? Why are you sending me?”
Padraig looked at the ground. “Never mind. I have my reasons.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re bloody nosy sometimes?”
“Sorry,” Padraig muttered. “I didn’t mean it like that. Me da’s just died, if you must know.”
“Your dad? I didn’t even know he was still alive. You’ve never mentioned him. I just assumed…”
“Because I’m older than dirt, my parents must be long gone and buried? Believe me, I have no idea how the old bastard lived as long as he did, with as much as he drank. But maybe whiskey has the same effect as formaldehyde when taken in large enough doses. Anyway…”
“I’m sorry, Padraig.”
“I am too. I know this news isn’t going to come welcome to you, but it’s got to be said, so…”
He sighed and then took a big breath through his giant nostrils. Then sighed again.
“Ah, well, I may as well tell you now as wait till you come back.”
“I’ve decided to retire.”
Jil almost spat out her drink.
“Excuse me? What? You’re not serious.”
She looked at him doubtfully, but the downturn of his mouth told her he was serious.
“Don’t you think I deserve some vacation time at my age? A membership to the seniors’ center, maybe? Time for the casino?”
She shoved him. “Hardly.”
“Fine. I might have an ulterior motive. I’ll be at a funeral while you’re sunbathing. Then I have to go sort through the old man’s affairs. Probably never took care of a single piece of paperwork ever in his life. Plus, I’d like to enjoy my golden years, you know?”
He patted his midsection and sighed. “Doc says I’ve got to drop a few pounds to go easier on my ticker. She gave me this contraption.” He opened his jacket to reveal something that looked like a tiny black pocket watch.
“A Fitbit?” Jil laughed. She tapped the screen. “Padraig, you’ve only got two thousand steps and it’s already eleven o’clock.”
“It’s been a slow day.”
Jil rolled her eyes. “That’s why you dragged me out here? Shit’s sake.”
“I knew you’d want to help me live a long and healthy life.” He glowered and she laughed harder.
“So that’s why…what’s going to happen to the firm?” Her stomach went cold. “My job?”
Padraig patted her hand. “Don’t worry about that just now. Take a vacation first.”
So that’s why he was giving her this assignment. Guilt.
He fished in his black satchel and handed her a blue folder.
She set her coffee on the bench between then. It tipped and Padraig caught it before it fell off.
“Jaysus Murphy, girl.”
“I’m sorry! God.” Jil moved the coffee back onto a level surface and set the file in her lap. She flipped to page one. And the wind took it right out of her hands.
A gust rippled through the park, catching the pages from her folder and whipping them around.
She sprang up to catch them—one landed in the fountain, two in the treetops. She snatched up the papers closest to her and shoved them into her satchel.
Padraig ran in the opposite direction.
She didn’t even wait to see if he’d retrieved them. Just shouted over her shoulder as she stalked off.
“You’re getting a treadmill! And I’m going back to the office. While I still have a job.”
Once she’d cleaned up and had a snack, she felt a little less like ripping up the case file, and a little more like reading it. How could Padraig retire? Just like that? What would she do without him? Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was thinking about giving it up?
She rolled her eyes. She knew exactly why he hadn’t said something. Because he hadn’t wanted her to freak out, wondering what she was going to do with her life, which is what she was doing right now.
She forced herself back to work, scanning the pages. A young woman had been killed by an orca at the sea aquarium.
She flipped the pages and scanned the evidence.
Her interest finally piqued, she pulled out her phone.
“Calling Jess Blake.”
Her partner answered on the second ring.
“Am I going to like this or not?”
Jil grinned. “Well…it depends on how you feel about the Caribbean.”
Jess laughed. “I won’t say I hate it. Where are we going?”
“St. Emeline. I know you’ve probably never heard—”
“Oh, I love St. Emeline.”
Jil threw up her hands. “Okay, so apparently I’m the only person in the world who needs to go back and study high school geography.”
“When do we leave?”
Padraig appeared at the door, waving something in her direction.
Plane tickets. The bribing bastard.
Saturday, he mouthed.
Jil rolled her eyes.
“You’d better pack your suitcase,” she said to Jess. “Looks like we’re on our way this weekend.”
“I’ve never heard of pre-tanning,” Jil complained as Jess pointed to a small dirt road coming up on their right. She steered the car uphill, sending small rocks flying into the undercarriage.
“You’ll be glad you did when you’re not turning into a lobster on the beach your first day out,” Jess replied. She opened the pamphlet on her lap. “There are twenty-seven features in this spa. Some hot, some cold. Something called a volcanic rock bed?”
Jil winked. “I hope it has a few dark corners.”
Jess shoved her. “Stop it. We’ll have plenty of that on our vacation!”
“Yeah. And we’d better enjoy it since I’ll soon be unemployed.”
Jess turned away.
“What?” Jil demanded.
But Jess shook her head and tried to smile. “Nothing. We’ll handle it.”
“Not sure how.” Jil gripped Jess’s elbows. “So can we just not think about it for now, please?”
That was a good idea. Jess knew that Jil had always counted on her job. Not for the money as much as for the outlet. The immersion of solving cases, following clues. It was the one thing she was good at. But without Padraig, what the hell was she going to do? She wasn’t cut out to work for anyone else. She still needed a mentor to keep her out of trouble. Constant trouble.
“Is it just me or has life been way too busy lately?”
Jess sighed. “Well, you certainly have been. Me…not so much.”
Jil patted her thigh. “I think we should use some of our vacation time to help you figure out your next step. Um, and mine, apparently. What do you think?”
With a long sigh, Jess nodded. “It’s about time, yeah. In the meantime, I’ve been looking into our case.”
“Our case, huh?” Jil grinned at her.
“Well, since I’m coming along, I might as well be useful.”
“Good thing one of us is organized. I haven’t even cracked the file since the day I got it. Too busy thinking about what snorkel gear to get!”
Jil parked and got out. Jess waited until she was headed up the path before she opened her door and slowly swung her legs out. Today would be a good experiment on heat and cold—which made things worse, which might help.
“All right, what did you find out?” Jil asked, taking her arm.
“Well, the sea aquarium has gone through several owners since it first opened in the early nineties. The current owner has had it for the past ten years. And in addition to being a world-famous attraction, it’s also home to a famous dolphin therapy center.”
“Oh. Neat. Who do the dolphins therapize?”
Jess tried to remember what the web site had said. “People with special needs, mostly. Kids with autism or other disabilities. They’re closed every morning to accommodate their therapy programs. Open to the public in the afternoons. The owner, Rebecca-somebody is a physiotherapist.”
“That’s interesting. Are we tanning first or last?”
Jess flipped the itinerary the right way around as she followed Jil up the ramp to the main doors.
“Well, then I want to find this volcanic heat bed.”
They made their way to the change rooms and slipped out of their winter coats.
She turned to see Jil staring at her in the light from the window.
“You’re like the definition of a whiter shade of pale, Jess.”
Jess just gave her a look as she stripped off her jeans.
“Yeah, well, not all of us like to spend every waking moment in the sun when it’s thirty below.”
“You look like Casper. Seriously. I don’t even think you can tan for five minutes.”
Jess looked down at her thighs. Yikes. Almost luminescent. She never tanned well to begin with, but she had barely been outside in the past year, since her rheumatoid arthritis had really begun to limit her mobility.
“Maybe I’d better go with the shortest of the short sessions,” she said.
“Why is it so dead in here?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Maybe Wednesday morning at the spa is not on everyone’s to-do list. Maybe they’re, for example, at work.”
She tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice, but she obviously didn’t succeed, because Jil put her arms around her and kissed her forehead.
“You’re not getting put out to pasture yet. So don’t worry about it. You’ll be back to work soon. Okay?”
Jess just sighed, not meeting her eye, as she took off her bra and panties and pulled on her bikini bottoms.
She looked up to see Jil’s tight nipples pointing through her sporty tankini.
“Hm,” she said.
Jil shot her a wry look. “What? It’s been a while, you have to admit.”
Jess felt a stab of guilt. “Not that long.”
“Um yeah. Forever, actually.”
Jess bit her lip and reached up a thumb to gently circle Jil’s nipple through the tight black fabric.
Jil closed her eyes and Jess pushed her back gently against the locker as she planted a kiss on her clavicle.
“Well, if I’d known that all it took was a trip to the spa, I would have booked us in weeks ago,” Jil muttered.
Jess traced her thumb down Jil’s side and slowly pulled back the waistband to her bikini bottoms. She slipped her hand inside—
And the door banged open. A group of college girls barreled in, giggling their way to the showers. Jess extracted her hand. “Later,” she whispered. “Let’s go.
Jil groaned and followed her out the doors to the outdoor path, pulling on her white plush robe as she went. The whole spa was designed in the Nordic style, with wide wooden beams and flagstone paths, waterfalls cascading freezing streams of water into the cold features, and huge, hot spring rock baths.
Jess looked at the canvas hammocks, lined with fleece. “I want to try that,” she announced.
“Good idea, but if we start there, I’m never getting out, so what about we start with something torturous and make our way back?”
Jess shivered in her white terry robe. “You’re supposed to follow the arrows and alternate hot and cold. First the waterfall, then the hot tub. Then the ladle dip, whatever that is. And then the…I can’t pronounce this.”
Jil peered over her shoulder. “No idea. It sounds like an IKEA couch. Let’s figure it out when we’re sitting in the hot springs.”
Jess kicked off her flip-flops and plunged into the icy pool. “Gah. That’s terrible!” she gasped.
Jil followed close behind, beating her to the waterfall that cascaded down the rock face. “Ohmygod.”
Jess stood shivering, her skin on fire. She wasn’t sure if the cold water was making her joint pain better or just distracting her by short-circuiting her whole body. “I’m not ducking under that.” Her lower jaw shuddered violently.
Jil disappeared under the waterfall and stuck her hand out. “Come on,” she called. Her voice was muffled by the roar.
Jess groaned and plodded through the icy water. She grinned when she spotted a loophole. In a second, she had slipped behind the waterfall and poked Jil.
She jumped. “Where did you come from?”
“I went around!”
Jess showed her the side exit and they stumbled back out the stone steps, then hurried to the hot feature.
“I really don’t think we need to follow the suggested route here,” Jil said. Her lips were still blue.
Jess sank down into the stone seat, hot water lapping at her shoulders. She still hadn’t stopped shivering.
“I agree. I think walking from hot tub to hot tub will cleanse our systems enough. Or whatever it’s supposed to do.”
Jess watched Jil dip her head back, extending her arms along the stone wall. She was still tanned, even after the brutal winter they’d had. And her fingernails badly needed a manicure.
“What are you worrying about?” she asked.
Jil looked up. “Nothing, why?”
Jess picked up one of Jil’s hands. “Because you only bite your nails this badly when you’re solving a case, and since the case hasn’t started yet…”
Jil sighed. “And it might be the last one I get for a while.”
Jess felt a clunk at the pit of her stomach. They couldn’t both be out of work. They’d be broke as well as stir-crazy.
“It’s Padraig. Why is he taking an extended leave now? He and his dad weren’t close. I don’t buy that he needs to take several weeks to clear out his decrepit house. He can hire someone for that if he wants to. He loves working. He needs work.”
“Maybe he really is just trying to take care of his health,” Jess said.
Jil shot her a look. “The man has had two pints with lunch the entire time I’ve known him. He’s never eaten a vegetable. Never taken exercise. And now he’s got a FitBit that he can barely operate. No. Something’s up.”
Jess laid a hand on her shoulder. “Well…I suppose there’s only one thing to do.”
Jil looked at her. “What?”
The teenagers from earlier were heading for the hot tub, and Jess rolled her eyes. They reminded her too much of her students.
Luckily, Jil seemed to read her mind and was already heading for the stairs.
As Jess took her time getting out, Jil had already read the map.
“Come on.” Jil flashed her a smile and pointed toward a nearby building. Jess shoved her feet into her flip-flops, threw her robe around her shoulders, and followed Jil to the low building with faded red siding.
Inside, once the door had closed, the silence was total. A dark heat filled the space, not steamy or dry like the saunas, but almost sizzling. And it was dark. For a moment, they stood by the closed door, waiting until their eyes adjusted.
“Here, I see some lower ones,” Jil whispered.
But Jess pulled Jil toward the ladder. “I want to go up.”
Jess climbed up, hand over hand, to the top bunk, then slid in next to Jil on the smooth molten stone. The heat was penetrating, stopping just shy of scorching her bare back.
On the other side of the room, a snore sounded over the spa music that issued from the hidden speakers—waterfalls and harps.
Jess giggled. Someone had obviously fallen asleep on one of the hotbeds below. As her eyes adjusted to the semi-darkness, she peered around the bottom beds.
The place was nearly empty.
Except for the snoring guy in the corner.
Jess tapped her shoulder and Jil turned around. Jess leaned over, cupping the back of her head as she pulled her in for a kiss. It was a bit of a tight squeeze for two, but Jil fit herself snugly into Jess’s arms and surrendered to the insistent pressure of Jess’s tongue on hers, the way her hair, still damp from their dip in the hot tub, brushed against Jess’s neck.
She fisted her hand at Jil’s hair, bit her lip gently—not enough to draw blood, but enough that Jil growled into her collarbone.
“Keep that up and we’re not going to make it home.”
Jess kissed her way up Jil’s neck to her ear, where she whispered, “Yeah, we’re not going to make it home.”
Jess brushed her thumb along Jil’s cheekbone as she kissed her deeply, the way Jil liked to tongue fuck. They kissed the way they talked—with a quick and easy rhythm, pulling back and searching, drawing each other out.
Jil pulled away a little. “We have to stop. I’m seriously going to have to come.”
Jess squeezed her breast. “So come.”
“Here? Honestly? What if—”
“I don’t care.”
The song on the spa music changed—this one including bells or chimes, or something. It didn’t matter what, because it was slightly louder than the previous track and muffled the sound of Jil’s moan when Jess reached behind her and undid her bikini top.
Jil’s breast arched right into Jess’s mouth, and Jess closed her lips gently over the nipple.
She wasn’t playing fair and she knew it, but something about the way Jil’s body undulated like a piece of music when she was aroused made Jess want to play her. She was an instrument of legs and arms, and one hot, sweet center. Not unlike her cello.
She ran her fingers down Jil’s skin, raking nails gently down her back, across her stomach.
“God,” Jil whispered when Jess made contact with her bikini bottom. “I can’t be quiet, Jess.”
Jess sealed her mouth over Jil’s and kissed her hard, dragging her nails down over the wet bathing suit, across Jil’s hard clit that pulsed under the swatch of Lycra.
Jil moaned into Jess’s mouth. A long, breathy sigh with a harder edge of need.
Jess knew that noise. Knew when Jil was hitting the brink of orgasm.
At the sound of the voice from below, they both froze. The snoring man jumped up from his hot bed and stormed out, the door banging behind him.
Jess giggled. “What the hell was that about?”
Jil moved her hips so Jess’s fingers were snugly against her clit.
“I guess he didn’t mean to fall asleep.” Her voice was edgy, tense.
Jess knew why. Her own body was ablaze, every single nerve on end and heated by the lava bed and Jil’s breasts pressed against her body.
She pulled Jil’s bikini bottom down and helped her work it free, then wiggled back up beside her and worked her fingers in slow circles against Jil’s clit. Jil moaned out loud.
If anyone happened to come in right now, they’d be in for a show, but Jess didn’t care, and she doubted Jil did either at this moment.
She nudged Jil’s legs open with her knee, and Jil obliged, ready for Jess’s fingers that curled into her, homing in on her G-spot as she maintained a steady rhythm on her clit with her thumb.
Jil arched back and squeezed around Jess’s fingers, urging her to go deeper.
Jess pulled out slowly and pushed back in firmly until Jil came, a strangled moaning against Jess’s shoulder.