Swept Away

"Where is he?"

 

“How the hell would I know?” The old woman looked suspiciously at her from behind the barely open door. “Am I his keeper or something?”

 

​With one hand stretched across her forehead, Charlotte Huntington tried to shield her eyes from the blinding Florida sunlight. She failed, but her gaze didn’t waver from the wrinkled face staring back at her. She started over. “I left several messages for him, in addition to my letters, but Mr. Gibson never replied. I flew in here from Denver just to—​​

"You coulda flew in on your own broom, honey, and Sam still wouldn’t get up before noon to meet ya.” The old lady opened the door a little wider and leaned against the frame, her cigarette smoke billowing out as she stared at Charlotte’s black suit and single strand of perfect pearls. When her watery blue eyes returned to Charlotte’s face, a flash of sympathy came, then went. “Ain’t you kinda hot in all them clothes?”

 

Charlotte's fingers went to the dark bangs falling across her forehead. She tried to push them into place, but the humidity pulled them back down. Actually, she was about to die. She’d left Colorado mountains quietly blanketed with the last snows of the season. There was white here, too, but it was sand, and it was baking.

Ignoring her discomfort and the woman’s question, Charlotte licked lips that had last seen lipstick ten hours ago and tried not to cough as the cloud of acrid smoke hit her. “Ca…can you simply tell me where I might find Mr. Gibson?”

Under her faded red swimsuit, the old woman shrugged her shoulders, her leathery skin wrinkling even more. “Ya might try down on the beach—that’s where he usually sleeps it off.”

Sleeps it off? Charlotte jumped back as the woman slammed the door, the conversation obviously finished.

Almost as finished as I am, Charlotte thought, turning back to face the steamy parking lot, if I don’t take care of this. And what the hell does “sleep it off” mean? That doesn’t sound good. The weight of her leather briefcase pulled at her arms, and a trickle of moisture inched down between her shoulder blades.

 

There was nothing left to do but traipse down to the beach. She turned and headed for the side of the building.

As she walked past the twelve units of Safe Harbor, Charlotte shook her head in disgust. Tall weeds grew with careless abandon in the flower beds, and the short brick walls that separated each unit’s patio from the next were crumbling at the corners. Splotched paint covered the weathered wooden exteriors, and, from what she’d seen of the older woman’s unit, things were not much better inside. Above Charlotte’s head, whipping back and forth in the strong breeze, was the only thing that looked well cared for—a bright American flag.

Continuing down the wooden boardwalk, Charlotte stared at the flag, its perfection a puzzling contrast to the rundown condos. Suddenly, she pitched forward, her heel trapped in one of the cracked boards.

Windmilling her arms and cursing loudly, she dropped her briefcase and managed to catch her balance before falling down completely. Bending over to untangle her foot, she looked around self-consciously. Screaming oaths in broad daylight was not something Charlotte Huntington normally did. But when she finally freed the shoe and held it up for inspection, another curse escaped. From top to bottom, the leather heel was ripped open, the white plastic underneath gleaming like a broken bone.

With a snort of disgust, she crammed the mutilated shoe back on her foot, picked up her briefcase—also sporting a new scratch from an exposed nail—and continued, madder than ever. If Sam Gibson had been doing his job, she wouldn’t even be here, much less ruining shoes she couldn’t afford anyway.

Rounding the corner, Charlotte’s eyes automatically squinted against the glare. White sand—sand so fine and bleached it looked like sugar—stretched before her, curving into dunes topped with tall swaying grass. She shaded her eyes once again, but saw nothing. With a frown of determination, she stepped off the boards and into the powder, scanning the beach on either side.

Finally, she spotted what looked like the tip of an umbrella hiding behind a dune down on her right. Tightening her grip on her briefcase and ignoring the sand filling her shoes, she headed in that direction.

What kind of man would be lying on a beach at three o’clock on a Monday afternoon? Any decent human being would be working for a living, she thought with a huff. And in Sam Gibson’s case that work included taking care of Safe Harbor.

The company could be sued for something like that broken sidewalk—how could he let such a potentially dangerous situation go without attention?

Her calves ached as she reached the crest of the dune, but Charlotte plowed ahead, her conviction growing that Sam Gibson was nothing but trouble. When she stopped and stared at the man stretched out asleep under the gaudy umbrella, she knew she was right.

He lay perfectly still, his eyes closed, obviously deeply asleep—or passed out. She wanted to shake him into wakefulness, but rousing him from his stupor also meant disturbing the scruffy dog beside him, and Charlotte hesitated. Trying to decide what to do, she studied Sam through narrowed eyes.

He was sprawled across a towel that was much too short for his long body. Tanned legs extended into powdery sand while his head rested on an incongruous bed pillow. On his right side, the dog shared the shade of the brightly colored umbrella, his long snout stretched across Sam’s flat stomach. Four empty beer cans, turned upside down and halfway buried, guarded his left flank.

Charlotte had thought the situation couldn’t get any worse when she’d pulled into the bumpy parking lot of the Safe Harbor condominium project and seen its condition, but now something told her she’d been wrong.

Terribly wrong.​