• Kelly Zimmer

Gifted Girls Only: Club Sapphire





Chapter One

My premonitions aren't always accurate, but this one was spot on, down to the centerpiece zipping past my head. We joked about it on the road to Angsley Island Resort in Pensacola Beach. We would laugh about it on the way home, too.

Howard Berman arranged the three-day resort weekend as a thank you for identifying his wife’s would-be kidnapper. His granddaughter, Sabrina, avoided prison and got Angie Berman’s Mercedes as a consolation prize. Sabrina sold me the red Fiat I eased along the resort's long, palm-lined drive.

Allison craned her neck to gape at the three golden towers. “Which floor are we on?”

I handed the valet my keys and joined my friends under the portico. “We have a three-bedroom suite on the fourteenth floor.”

Theresa supervised the valet loading our bags onto a brass cart. She and Allison work with me at Mayweather Executive Solutions. The pay is excellent, and sometimes there's a bonus. For Angie Berman's attempted kidnapping and murder, the firm’s partners got a double payday from Angie's husband and her father. Harold Berman threw in a holiday for us minions.

Allison, Theresa, and I usually motor mouth over one another, but the Angsley Island Resort reduced us to gawking tourists. Three massive towers set in a crescent on thirty acres of lushly landscaped grounds jutted into the gulf. The architecture afforded every balcony a view of white sands and emerald waters.

“I get the room off the balcony!” Allison sprawled atop the downy white comforter to claim her bed.

Theresa squealed, “This one has a whirlpool tub!”

The remaining bedroom was the largest and its panoramic view of the Gulf breathtaking. I dragged myself away to change into my bathing suit, then joined the others on the balcony.

Theresa's hazel-green eyes took in the scene fourteen floors below. “I could live here.” Tall and slender, Theresa could have been mistaken for a model shooting an ad for the place.

I flipped through the guest services brochure. “There’s so much to do. Where do we start?”

“At the beach,” Allison said, “then the pool, then mini-golf, then a nap. We'll hit the dance club tonight.”

“You're not twenty-one,” Theresa teased. “You can hang out in the playground while Emi and I hit Club Sapphire.”

“Cute.” Allison adjusted her boobs inside the bikini top. “My fake ID is the best in the business.” She scrunched up her nose. “Is this a good place to find a rich husband?”

“Like you could stay married for five minutes,” I snorted. Allison limited herself to three months per relationship assuming she didn't get bored sooner. “I could see Theresa landing a stockbroker out here, though.”

Theresa wrapped a fringed scarf around her tiny waist. The cover-up hid little and showcased her long legs. “Forget it. I'll let them buy me drinks then shoo them back to their wives before they get ideas.”


***


Allison's agenda kept us busy until after midnight. Friday morning, we hid our party-reddened eyes behind huge sunglasses then revived ourselves with overpriced caffeine,

“I can't do two more nights like that.” Theresa's creamy hazelnut complexion had an orangey cast while the puffy flesh under my eyes had a more greenish tinge.

The excesses of the night before didn’t dampen Allison’s enthusiasm. “We'll hit the beach then the spa for a massage. You'll be back to partying form by lunch.”

A stroll in the sugar sand, a dip in one of the two infinity pools, and a seaweed wrap left us languid. Over lunch, a refreshed Theresa announced she was ready to give Club Sapphire another go.

Allison tossed a blonde braid over a bare shoulder. “You know I'm up for it. What are we doing this afternoon?”

Hidden behind a potted palm at the heart of the resort's lifestyle center, we ate cradled in a cocoon of tranquility. We tossed around options as we dug into a divine shrimp salad with mango lime dressing. We’d settled on shopping when a shrill bitchy voice filtered through the fronds.

“Kenni Garvey, what a surprise, you alone as usual.”

“Go away, Julie.” This voice also belonged to a woman but sounded hushed and defensive.

“Love to, but Mom wants me to introduce you to people.”

“I don't want to meet anyone.”

“And they don't want to meet your droopy ass. Listen, I met a guy last night. He wants to take me to a real club tonight. If Mom asks in the morning, I was out all night with you at the lame resort club.”

“I don’t want to be out anywhere tonight.”

“Walk on the beach or something. I'll text you when I'm on my way back.”

“Forget it, Julie. What would Mom and Dad say if something happened to you?”

“Afraid they might notice you for a change?”

“I'm not lying for you. Anyway, the club doesn’t look that lame.”

“Like you would know.” The bitchy voice fake-laughed.

“Who is this guy you’re seeing?”

“Why, you interested? Forget it. He’s got no time for nerdy lumps. Just show up at the club. If Mom asks, that’s where you saw me last.”

Metal scraped against tile, and heels clicked briskly away.

“That was ugly,” Theresa whispered.

Allison pouted. “Poor kid. I’ll check on her.”

“Allison,” I began, but my shapely friend was already around the palm. Theresa and I shrugged and followed.

Chapter Two

The girl slouching over the Caprese salad was built like me, short and not slender. Her hair was redder than mine, a deep brick pulled back from a moon-round face. She wore an unflattering horizontal-striped sundress and indifferent sandals.

“Hey,” Allison said and invited herself to sit.

Soft, uncertain blue eyes considered her warily.

Our eavesdropping embarrassed me, but Allison had no shame. “We overheard your sister and wanted to make sure you were all right.”

The shy eyes wouldn't meet ours. “Julie’s my stepsister, and she's got her own issues.”

“Issues that make it okay to treat you like that?” Theresa took the chair next to Allison.

The girl considered, trusted us, and heaved a grudging sigh. “I didn't come on the scene until we were fifteen. Before then, I lived with my mom in Denver. Julie and her mom had my father and the house to themselves. She thinks I'm ruining her life.”

I claimed the remaining chair. “Why don't you go home to your mom?”

“My mom died from bone cancer. I wanted to stay in Denver, but I was only fifteen.”

Allison placed both of her hands over one of hers. “I'm so sorry. Were you close?”

“It was the two of us since I was five. When Mom died, and I had to come here, it was like moving into a house full of strangers.” A tear glistened on a pale cheek.

Theresa put cheer in her voice. “Hey, why don't I order us some wine?”

“Why would you do that? I don't even know you.”

“Oh my God, how rude of us.” Allison batted the long lashes that charmed busboys and millionaires alike. “I'm Allison Francona, and these are my friends Emily Watson and Theresa Fitzpatrick. We're doing a gifted-girls-only weekend.”

Frown lines appeared. “Gifted Girls? Is that a club?”

Allison did a 'silly me' head waggle. “I meant girls-only. I don't know where the gifted came from. We work together in Tallahassee.”

The baby pink lips finally parted in a smile. “Kenni Garvey, Kendall Marie Garvey, but no one calls me Kendall except my dad. What kind of work do you do?”

Theresa pulled out our standard socially acceptable lie, “We work at a business services company called Mayweather Executive Solutions, MES. What do you do?”

“Until last month, I went to Florida State.”

The wine came, and our friend relaxed and opened up. Kenni and her sister were both twenty-one. Kenni was a studious introvert while Julie was the sexy party-girl. Heather, Kenni's stepmom, tried, but she had a philandering husband and a slacker college-dropout daughter to deal with.

“Things were okay while I was in college. I’d come home on weekends when Julie was out partying so she could pretend I didn’t exist. Now that I’ve graduated, it’s like I’m invading her space, and it gets worse. My dad wants me to work for his marketing company.”

“You don’t want to work for your dad?” I asked.

“Watch my dad chat up the women in the office all day and have Julie verbally beat me up at home at night? No thanks. Once I save some money, I’m getting the hell away from those people.”

“Why don't you leave now?” Theresa asked.

“No money of my own, no job skills other than summers at my dad's office, and no guts.” She finished her wine, stood, and wobbled. “Thanks for listening to my troubles, but I'm sure you've got better things to do.”

“We're hanging loose,” I said. “What about you?”

“Avoiding my parents and Julie. I might walk around the shops.”

Allison bounced out of her seat. “That’s what we’re doing. Maybe we'll run into you.”

We waggled our fingers at Kenni as she trudged away.

Theresa signaled for the check. “What's on your mind, Emi?”

“Same thing that's on yours. We need to help that girl.”

“We're not working, we're here to relax.”

“Kenni needs a friend. She can hang with us, that's all I'm saying.”

“She needs more than a friend,” Allison observed.

“You did your mind-reading trick on her?” Theresa asked.

“She's not exactly lying, but it's worse than she's letting on. Julie's a hateful bitch. She tells Kenni that her dad doesn't want her, and that guys think she's a big fat bore.”

“The bullying bitch!” Theresa led us toward the shops. “Why doesn't Kenni do something?”

Allison shrugged. “What can she do? She could leave, but you see her confidence level.”

“What about the stepmom?” I asked.

“Kenni feels sorry for her. Her husband's cheating and her daughter's barely under control. Kenni suspects Heather drinks too much and doesn't want to make more trouble for her.”

The breeze caught Theresa's long hair. It fluttered against her bare shoulders. “What a family. What about you, Emi? Do you see anything in their future?”

“You know that vision I mentioned on the way here? It may be related to them.”

“Wild,” Theresa said. “Well, what's it going to be? Party 'til we drop or help Kenni Garvey?”

“I vote for both,” Allison chirped.

Chapter Three

“Kenni, there you are,” Allison called.

We’d stalked Kenni as she flipped through a rack of bathing suits that even a fashion dunce like me could see wouldn't work on her.

Theresa snaked a slim arm around the girl's rounded shoulders and led her to another rack. “This one-piece with a shirred waist would show off those legs.”

Theresa was our fashion maven but specialized in finding people and things people needed. She’d have Kenni runway-ready by mid-afternoon.

My strategy took more time. I pulled up Frederick Garvey's marketing company on the internet. The picture on my phone showed a tall, broad-shouldered man of about fifty. Smoky hair and soulful slate-gray eyes attached to a sizeable bank account made him an enticing target for women hoping to trade up.

Locating Daddy Garvey in the sprawling resort required focus. I held a picture of him in my head until he floated behind my eyelids against nothing but the impossibly blue June sky. A drink appeared in his hand and a woman by his side. I didn't need the internet to know the olive-skinned, black-haired beauty sizing up Frederick wasn't Heather Garvey.

I zoomed upstairs to change. When I entered the Coral Sands Bar, my cinnamon-flecked hair framed a face brightened with lip gloss and mascara. I hoped the makeup made me look older than my twenty-two years. I swooped on an empty table behind Frederick, who had settled himself at the bar moments before I arrived.

A text arrived from Allison while I sipped Chardonnay.

“Ran into Heather at the spa, getting facials.”

I was studying my empty glass when the woman sauntered up to Frederick. The twenty-something stunner shot her target a sly smile. She slid onto the high-backed stool next to him, ordered, and leaned in close. A veil of glossy black hair hid faces, but their shoulders trembled with light laughter.

I sipped patiently until my vision became a reality, then approached the bar and wedged myself between the couple. “Excuse me, miss. You may have inadvertently put this gentleman's wallet in your bag.”

Frederick's gaze fixed on the woman as his right hand shot to his back pocket.

The pair sat frozen while I collected a fresh glass of wine from the bartender.

I extended my debit card, but Frederick said, “I'll take care of that.”

The hustler shook herself, dipped into her bag, and retrieved a tan leather billfold. Frederick snatched it and paid for my drink as she huffed away.

“Thank you. That could have ruined my vacation.”

“My eyes were in the right place at the right time.” It also helped that I'd seen the pickpocket at work in my head an hour earlier. I extended a hand. “Emi Watson. May I join you?”

“I’m flattered, but I have a daughter, no two daughters, about your age.”

I climbed onto the cushioned stool. “Are they twins?”

His laugh was genuine. “Not even close. My stepdaughter, Julie, is adorable but a wild child. Kendall is perfect in almost every way.”

That surprised me. Kenni left me with the impression her dad wasn't interested in her. “In what way isn't she perfect?”

He cocked his head. “Her biggest fault is having me for a father.”

“You can't be that bad.” Inside my head, I said, “tell me all about it.”

“Before her mom and I divorced, I was a decent dad. Rotten husband, though.” His lips curled in a rueful smile. “Her mom was done with me. Worse, she didn’t want me in Kendall’s life so she moved to Denver. I could have fought it, but I was literally caught with my pants down.”

I giggled

“You have a sweet laugh. I wish Kendall would laugh more.”

“Is she depressed?”

“Sad.” Frederick gazed across the bar at nothing. “Kendall's mother died when she was fifteen. I'd barely seen her for ten years, then one day—bam, she's living with me. She was so shy and withdrawn. Her mother had just died, and I had a new family. My wife tried, but Julie didn't make things easier.”

“Your stepdaughter is jealous of your daughter?”

“I don't understand why. Julie's a brat, but she's a beautiful girl, full of energy and life. She has so much going for her, but she’s angry at the world.”

“I suppose that's your fault too?”

He nodded into his scotch and soda. “My work, my company, has meant everything to me. Now that the girls are adults, I realize it's meant way too much.”

“That's why your head gets turned by women like Little Miss Pickpocket?”

He pulled back and raised a brow. “You're a perceptive little thing, aren't you?”

“So I'm told. I've also been told I should mind my own business.”

I slid off the stool. “Since I've already been rude, I'll give you my unsolicited two cents. Tell your daughter, both your daughters, that you love them and that from now on, they're your top priority, them and your wife.”

His eyes narrowed when he frowned.

“And thanks for the drink.”


***

We held a poolside update.

“Frederick's ex-wife kept Kenni and her dad apart,” I reported. “Kenni grew up hearing that her father was a no-good bastard then, surprise, she has to move in with him. Frederick sees she's hurting but doesn't want to push it, figures she'll hate him no matter what he does.”

“According to Kenni,” Theresa said, “her mom said he abandoned them. He remarried so fast, Kenni feels like that must have been true.”

“How does Kenni feel about Heather?” I asked.

“She sees Heather as the shallow trophy wife. Kenni doesn't respect her but recognizes she means well. Like when she moved in, Heather decorated Kenni's room all pink and girly, not her style at all.”

I settled back in the lounge chair. “Heather doesn’t understand Kenni. She tries to treat her like Julie, which doesn't work. What did you get, Allison?”

“Heather's a total sweetheart, but she's overwhelmed and frightened by Julie’s behavior. Frederick's screwing around hurts. She loves the guy, and she's terrified Frederick will leave her for someone younger. Then there's the money. She was a poor single mom and doesn't want to take a step backward.”

“Julie probably has the same anxiety,” I said. “Since Kenni's moved in, she's afraid she'll be set aside for the 'real' daughter.”

“What's next?” Allison asked. “We know why these people are making themselves miserable, but how do we stop them?”

Theresa stretched her long, brown legs. “They need to open up to each other.”

“I suggested that to Frederick. He didn’t appreciate my input.”

Theresa turned to me. “You're a total stranger giving him unsolicited family counseling—how did you think that would go?”

I cringed in retrospect.

“We need to give them something to talk about,” Allison said. “Let's hit the beach and come up with an icebreaker.”

Chapter Four

We strolled to the dance club as a crimson sun melted into the Gulf of Mexico.

“You're sure Kenni will be there?” I asked.

“She has to be,” Theresa said, “Julie wants Kenni to cover for her while she takes off for parts unknown.”

“I'm worried about Julie,” I said.

“Do you see something in her future?” Allison asked.

“I haven't tried. See if you can put your hands on her guy friend, make sure his intentions aren't any eviler than most guys.”

Allison has to touch people when she reads their minds. With guys, that’s seldom a problem.

“Will do. There's Derrick.” She waved at a short athletic guy across the street.

“Who?” Theresa and I asked together, but he’d already reached us with a friend at his heels. Derrick introduced his buddy as Trey.

Theresa and I got eager glances from Trey before he asked Allison, “Derrick said you have a friend for me?”

Allison grinned. “Not these two. Emi's attached, and if you want to go out with Theresa, you'll need a bank statement, last year's tax return, and two credit references.”

“Out of my league,” Trey sighed.

“Theresa's out of most everyone's league. We'll catch up with Kenni at the club. She's cute and her daddy's rich.”

Trey wrinkled his brow. “What's the catch?”

“Shy.” Allison rolled her eyes. We walked and talked all the way to Club Sapphire, the lame resort dance club.

We bought our own drinks, which impressed Derrick and Trey. They were sweet guys. Derrick didn't have a chance with Allison but I wasn't about to burst his bubble.

Julie appeared an hour later in club-perfect makeup and a body-hugging, backless mini-dress. A basketball-player-tall guy at the bar waved her down. Julie's long legs carried her off, leaving Kenni standing alone at the entrance.

We worked our way to her through the crowd. Theresa had outdone herself on Kenni's wardrobe. The brick-red hair popped against a sultry black satin dress with a halter neckline and a wrap skirt that flowed over her curves.

Trey didn't wait to be introduced.

Allison and Derrick hit the dance floor first, but Kenni and Trey weren't far behind. Theresa and I strolled around, watching everyone, especially Julie.

“Brilliant job on Kenni's style, Theresa.”

“I struggled to get her to even try it on. I suspect her size two sister has been feeding her shit about her weight. That floppy sundress hid great legs. What do you think about this guy Julie's with? Are you seeing anything about him?”

“Indeed I do, and her name is Theresa.”

She smiled and purred.

We claimed an open table. Allison and Derrick each grabbed chairs and joined us, as did Kenni and Trey a few minutes later.

Family angst was long forgotten, and Kenni's round face glowed with a light sheen of sweat. Trey's arm found its way around her waist. We talked about the resort and the club's music, which was, admittedly, lame, but that didn't stop everyone from having fun.

Derrick suggested we go somewhere quieter for a quick bite to eat. We tossed around a few ideas but were interrupted when Julie and Aaron approached Kenni.

“We're heading out.”

The light went out of Kenni's face. “Guys, this is my sister, Julie.”

“Stepsister.” Julie pulled Aaron by the wrist.

Allison let her fingers rest on Aaron's free hand. “Do I know you?”

“Maybe, I play basketball for Florida State.”

Allison bounced up. “I knew I recognized you,” she lied. “Stay for a minute.”

Taking my cue, I slid next to Theresa. Our butts shared one chair so Aaron could sit. Allison settled on Derrick's surprised and appreciative lap to make a place for Julie.

After a few minutes of chat, Julie stood. “Come on, Aaron. I want to go to a real club.”

He waved her off. “It's early. Let's have one more drink.”

Conversations ebbed and flowed. When our drinks needed refreshing, Allison distracted Julie with talk about shopping in Tallahassee, and Theresa was all over Aaron.

When Julie noticed she'd lost Aaron's attention, she snapped, “Let's go.”

“Why?”

“You promised.”

“We’ll go tomorrow night.” Aaron turned back to Theresa, who ratcheted up both her smile and her Kentucky accent.

Laughing, Allison dragged Trey to the dance floor. Derrick retaliated by grabbing Kenni.

Julie's eyes followed Kenni's shapely legs as they disappeared into the crowd. When Julie’s attention returned to the table, Theresa pulled Aaron to his feet. The pair disappeared into the crowd.

I shot Julie a smile. “I guess it's just us wallflowers.”

She flounced out of Club Sapphire.

We closed the place down at midnight. It really was a lame club.

Chapter Five

Saturday morning was a replay of Friday morning.

“How about a walk and a detox scrub? I suggested.

Afterward, we sipped herbal tea on our balcony. When Theresa's phone buzzed, she raised it, smiled at the text, and unfolded herself from the lounge chair.

Allison readjusted the cucumber slices over her eyes. “What's up?”

“Kenni needs help with another bathing suit. She and Trey are doing the water park later.”

While Theresa and Kenni hit the shops, Allison and I planned attacks on Frederick and Heather. We'd seen Frederick headed to the golf course as we left the spa. That would put him in the clubhouse at lunchtime. Allison prepared herself to make his acquaintance and read his mind.

I needed to bump into Heather. I called Kenni’s suite to get her step-mom’s schedule.

“Mrs. Garvey? This is Emi Watson. Kenni and I met at Club Sapphire last night.”

“She told me all about you!” The voice smiled. “I'm sorry, Kenni's shopping, and Julie's still asleep. Can I take a message?”

“It can wait. I'm sure you've got a busy day planned.”

“Just a pedicure, then I'm meeting my husband at the golf club for lunch.”

Uh oh. I'd have to text Allison to rush her 'date' with Frederick.

“What a coincidence, I'm getting a pedicure this morning. Maybe I'll see you there.”

The guys we work for, Sean and Tony, are more than just gifted. They're practitioners, which means they can influence people and get them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. I needed the spa staff’s help to seat me next to Heather Garvey. As I'm not a practitioner, I had to rely on audacity.

I waited until the receptionist stepped away, then strode into the salon and squirmed into the massage chair next to the fortyish, frosted blonde with pouty lips.

“Mrs. Garvey, it's me, Emi Watson.”

The smile reached the creases at the corners of her eyes. “How nice to meet you!”

The woman was sweet and genuine and talked up a storm. A harassed nail tech hung back until he could get in a word in then asked me if I had an appointment.

“Yes,” I lied confidently, “a hot stone pedicure.”

He frowned but returned with a tray and got to work on my sunburned feet.

I learned nothing Allison hadn't, but I saw something scary. There was a blow-up in Heather's future, a loud argument. I'd have to watch her.

“What are your plans for the evening?” I asked while we waited for our cards to process.

She hunched her shoulders and wrinkled her nose. “Frederick's taking the entire family on a dinner cruise tonight.”

Huh, the guy listened to me. I texted my friends informing them of our dinner plans.

***


The daily thunderstorm kept us confined to the suite during the early afternoon hours. We used the time to compare notes.

“I officially ship Kenni and Trey,” Theresa announced. “You should have seen her trying on clothes.”

“I thought she just wanted another bathing suit,” I said.

“And something for lunch after the water park and a dress for the dinner cruise.”

I snapped my fingers. “I bet she's taking Trey as her one plus. Will Julie will bring Aaron?”

Allison peeled a banana. “I wouldn't be surprised. I saw them out on a paddle boat together.”

“Did you get anything from Frederick?” I asked.

“He thinks his family only cares about his money. Like Kenni was happy to get the college education but can't wait to get away from him. And he's tired of funding Julie's partying and general slacker-hood. He loves Heather, but thinks she's only hanging in because she's terrified of having to support herself.”

“Is that why he chases after other women?” Theresa asked. “Is he looking for someone who loves him for himself?

“He wouldn't give me a tumble, and I'm an adorable package if I say so myself.” Allison doesn’t do false modesty. “He was watching the swans in the pond outside the club. I slid up to him, touched his arm, and mentioned swans mate for life. That's when I got the story from inside his head, but he pulled away. He was nice about it, but he didn't like me touching him.”

“Interesting man.” I reached for an apple but was interrupted by the doorbell. I didn't know we had a doorbell and it scared the life out of me. I bounded up to answer it. Like an idiot, I didn't look, I just opened the door.

Frederick Garvey marched past me to the dining room. “All of you together, how convenient.” Blazing eyes landed on me. “What in the hell are you people up to?”

Chapter Six

Theresa ignored his rage. “I don't believe we've met, I'm Theresa Fitzpatrick. Kenni has told me so much about you.”

“I'm sure she has, and I want to know why.”

The three of us exchanged anxious glances.

“We met your daughter at lunch, and we want to be friends?” Allison offered tentatively.

“Right,” he inclined his head my way, “then this one showed up at the bar where I got my pocket picked. And she had a spa appointment at the same time as my wife. And you conveniently bumped into me at the golf club. And that one,” he nodded to Theresa, “has Kendall buying clothes, makeup, and God knows what else.”

“You find shopping suspicious?” Theresa snorted.

“The shopping, no. The showing up everywhere I turn, yes. Tell me what you're up to.”

I let my forehead crease. “We're being friendly. Do you think the only people who'll be friends with Kenni are con artists?”

“Kendall is a bright but unworldly girl. She doesn't spend a fortune on clothes and makeup. She doesn't go to dance clubs and water parks.”

Allison did her cheerleader's voice. “Shouldn’t you be happy she's coming out of her shell?”

“Delighted,” he snapped, “but that doesn't explain why you people are stalking my wife and me.”

“We're not stalking anybody.” My voice was louder and angrier than I expected.

Allison spoke up. “Why would we? You may be a big deal back in Jacksonville, but not here.”

“Resorts like this are full of girls like you looking for a score.”

Theresa's arm shot to the door. “Out! Get out or I’ll call security!”

“Calm down, Theresa. We're not calling security.” I gave the arrogant bastard the benefit of the doubt and released an exasperated sigh. “Mr. Garvey, we're on a vacation paid for by a grateful client. If you keep accusing us of whatever it is you're accusing us of, I'll call the men we work for. When they get here, they’ll kick your ass: legally, physically, and psychically.”

Frederick's head jerked on the word “psychically” probably because, like me, he wasn't sure if it really was a word.

“Are you threatening me?” he hissed.

“I am.”

His laughter surprised me with its high pitch and exuberance.

Theresa raised a brow. “Do you need a drink, mister?”

He covered half his face with a hand. “Sure, whatever you've got.”

Frederick Garvey took the empty chair at the dining table. “I apologize. I'm used to untangling Julie from all sorts of messes. I don't want to see Kendall go that way too.”

Theresa set a shot of rum on the table.

Allison rolled her chair closer to his. “That's sweet. You must really love Kenni.”

“I do, I always have. She was the most delightful child. When she moved back, she was so unhappy, not the bubbly toddler I remembered. And Julie’s made it so hard for her at home. I've let Kenni down.” Frederick drank the rum in one swig, tilting his head back to hide the tears forming at the corner of the gray eyes.

“Kenni loves you,” I assured him.

“And I promise you,” Theresa added, “we have no plans to rip off you or your wife.”

He ran appraising eyes over us. “I apologize again for my outburst. I understand you'll be on the dinner cruise tonight.”

“Can’t wait,” I said, and I meant it.

***

I lurked with Allison and Derrick on the observation deck, watching for Kenni. She spotted us first and waved the arm without Trey attached to it.

Frederick and Heather held hands as they boarded. Julie slunk behind them like a thirteen-year-old dragged to a boring adult party. Trey and Derrick wandered off for a beer, leaving Allison and me with the Garveys.

A smiling Kenni introduced us. “Mom, Dad, this is Allison and her friend Emi.”

Heather sparkled. “Emi and I met in the spa today.”

“I’ve run into Emi, too.” Frederick’s lips curled in an ironic smile.

I slid my eyes to the right and took three sideways steps. Frederick took the hint and followed.

Keen eyes found mine. “What do you know about this Trey guy Kenni’s with?”

“He’s all right. He’s friends with Derrick, the guy with Allison. Kenni thinks you’ll like him. That’s why she invited him tonight.”

He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “What has Kendall been saying about me?”

“Kenni’s feelings for you are,” I struggled to find the right word, “conflicted. She loves you but thinks you abandoned her. She's got you all wrong, and you need to set her straight. That's why I said what I did at the bar yesterday.”

“She adored her mother. Do you really think she’ll believe her mom kept us apart?”

“She'll believe you if you explain it the right way.”

“What way is that?”

“Tell your side, but don't run down her mom.”

We glanced at Kenni, Allison, and Heather as they chattered and gestured. Julie seethed at the fringe of the circle, not at the center where she believed she belonged.

“Julie could use some attention,” I said.

His smile turned amused. “You’re full of advice, aren't you?'

“Sorry, my mouth doesn't get the concept of 'none of my business.”

Frederick Garvey squeezed my arm and strode off toward Julie. Before he reached her, Julie let out a piercing screech.

I turned, first to her, then to the gangplank. Right on schedule, Theresa stepped on board, arm-in-arm with the handsome Florida State University point guard.

Chapter Seven

“What the hell!” Julie screamed.

Aaron stiffened, pirouetted away from the banshee yell, and joined Derrick and Trey at the bar.

Theresa ignored Julie's outburst and greeted Kenni with a hug. “You're looking mah-va-lous tonight, dahling.”

“Heather, this is Theresa. She’s helped me pick out clothes.” Kenni twirled to show off the skirt of her sexy lace cocktail dress.

Julie's face flamed. “She's the bitch moving in on Aaron.”

“Julie!” Frederick's voice matched his steel-gray eyes.

Theresa waved a hand. “We just met last night. Aaron expressed an interest in the dinner cruise. Since we were already signed up, I invited him to join us for dinner.”

“He’s with me, you lying bitch!”

Heather's face contracted in alarm. “Julie, people are staring. Get a grip.”

“Get a grip yourself and stick up for me! While you're at it, quit gushing over Little Miss Perfect just because she put on a decent dress for a change. And Dad can quit hanging all over his new little friend.”

“Hey,” I snapped. “We were just having a conversation.”

“He has lots of 'conversations' with girls your age.” Julie’s voice dripped sarcasm.

Frederick hissed, “That’s enough. I’m sick of your spoiled brat act.”

“And I'm sick of you.”

“Sick of me buying your clothes? Paying for school only to see you drop out to party?”

“I'm sick of being the step-kid, sick of not being good enough because I'm not her!” Julie raised an unsteady arm toward Kenni.

Panic lit Heather's eyes. “That's unfair. Frederick has been a wonderful father to you.” She spoke just above a whisper.

Julie mocked her. “Right, don't mess with our meal ticket. Admit it, you married him for his money, and you'll do anything to hold on to him, even suck up to his dumpy daughter.”

Allison wrapped an arm around Kenni, who reverted to the shy, uncertain girl we'd met the day before.

Frederick's blazing eyes shifted to Heather, who pulled herself straight and smiled. “I don’t deny it. My first husband ran off, leaving us nothing. A single mom with a high school education doesn't have much of a future. Then you stepped in,” the little-girl voice caught, “my white knight who dates girls half my age while I'm home alone with my vodka.”

Theresa wrapped Heather’s hands in hers. “Your husband loves you,” she said, “but the drama at home makes him doubt his value to you.”

Julie exploded. “That asshole’s never had a doubt in his life!”

Frederick stalked off toward the bar.

Julie snatched a centerpiece from the nearest table and heaved it at the back of Frederick's head. The pearl and rose-filled crystal bowl whizzed by my ear, over the boat's railing, and into the Gulf.

Every eye in the dining room turned to Julie, who froze, mouth hanging open, turquoise-lidded eyes wide.

A gull cried, the spell broke, and the deck filled with pre-dinner chatter. Frederick continued his march to the bar.

Theresa hustled a trembling Heather to Frederick's side. Once Heather was safely delivered, Theresa took her place beside Aaron, who hunched his shoulders, back to the crowd.

Allison and Kenni joined Derrick and Trey, leaving me alone with Julie.

I stepped in close. “Can I get you anything?”

“I hate them,” she hissed.

“You love them, and you're terrified of losing them. Well, not so much them, but their attention. Allison says you feel like nothing you do is good enough for your stepdad, and you hate that your mom is more like a needy friend than your mom. And Kenni, she scares the hell out of you. You're the pretty one, Kenni, the smart one. If Kenni can be pretty and smart, where does that leave you, right?”

She squinted at me. “You don’t know the first thing about me.”

“I don't, but Allison does. She read your mind last night in the club. That’s Allison’s gift, she reads minds. I can tell the future,” I said with a smug smile. “That centerpiece you tossed? I saw that coming when we were driving down here on Thursday.”

Julie’s laughter was half-hysterical. “You're crazy.”

“It sounds crazy, doesn't it? I rarely talk about our gifts, but no one will believe anything you say tonight, and it’s liberating to share for a change. Let's get a drink.”

To my surprise, she followed. The others had already moved inside to dinner. I bought two glasses of wine and leaned against a rail next to Julie. Her hair hung over hunched shoulders as she stared into the churning water.

“Here's the deal, Julie. Frederick believes you and Heather only care about his money. Kenni thinks her dad abandoned her. You're afraid of being upstaged by Kenni. Your mom's put up with Frederick’s screwing around and your acting up, but she's running out of 'give a shit' and is turning to vodka. In short, your family dynamic sucks.”

“Why do I care?” She sniffed and slugged wine.

“You and Frederick are powerful personalities. Kenni and Heather have been going with the negative flow. If you and your stepdad make some changes, they'll snap out of it. Frederick's changed. Now it's your turn.”

She tried to sneer at me but couldn't maintain it.

“Stop bullying Kenni. Be her friend. Get your shit together, finish school, give your mom something to be proud of. And show Frederick some appreciation.”

Julie dropped her empty wineglass into the Gulf. “Or what? Are you mind-reading, fortune-telling lunatics going to make me?”

“We're not. I know a man who could, but Tony’s not here, so it's up to you.”

She snorted.

“You've just made a complete ass of yourself in front of a boatload of strangers, and you're stuck out here with them for another two hours. Either you hide in the restroom or go make nice with your family. At least act like you're having fun. My guess is they'll do what they can to make you feel better. They love you.”

Half of her delicate features sneered as she strode by me into the dining room. I wasn’t sure, but I think the other half of her face was crying.

I finished my wine and joined my friends. The cruise would dock before ten, giving us another opportunity to shut down Club Sapphire. Across the room, Trey and Kenni sat close, hands clasped under the table. Frederick and Heather talked and laughed, and Julie joined in occasionally. I hoped it wasn’t just an act.

Chapter Eight


Saturday night’s excesses required a walk on the beach Sunday morning followed by a visit to the juice bar for a detoxifying drink. That and a brisk swim gave us enough energy to pack. We checked out but left our luggage with the front desk so we could enjoy one more stroll around the Angsley Island Resort.

Allison clicked her tongue. “I can't believe you told Julie about our gifts. What if she tells her folks?”

I huffed. “They won’t believe her.”

“Actually, I hope they do,” Theresa said. “Frederick Garvey can afford our services.”

“Speak of the devil.” Allison bobbed her chin toward the mini-golf course.

The sisters were teamed up against Heather and Frederick. We were too far away to hear the conversation, but there was a lot of laughter. Kenni and Julie high-fived, then the group moved around a corner, out of sight.

Relief settled on me, releasing tension in my jaw I hadn't realized was there. “I was afraid I'd ruined their vacation.”

“Honey, you did nothing on your own,” Theresa reminded me.

“And you shouldn't be surprised it worked out,” Allison added. “Gifted girls rule.”

If it works out. The hard work’s ahead of them.” We returned to our tower.

We settled in the Fiat while the valet loaded our luggage.

“We should do this again,” Allison said, “have another gifted-girls-only weekend.”

“It would be more relaxing,” Theresa observed, “If we kept our gifts to ourselves.”

I did not see that happening, ever.


END



© 2020 by Kelly Zimmer.

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