by Stacy Lynn Miller
Old flames. New secrets. Delayed justice.
Now private investigators, Manhattan Sloane and Finn Harper have just landed their very first big job—a contract to clean up a hefty load of unsolved crimes in San Francisco. On day one, the two women step into a political quagmire that pits them against powerful competing forces in the city.
Feeling like a pawn in a high-stakes chess game, Sloane stumbles across an unsolved murder with ties to her past—the police officer who rescued her from her parents’ deadly accident. When evidence points to someone close to her, she becomes determined to solve the twenty-two-year-old murder. But her progress is slowed by old flames and new secrets that threaten to unravel her new life with Finn and her daughter Reagan.
Will cutthroat politics prevent her from getting justice for her hero? Will Sloane finally get her happily ever after?
A Manhattan Sloane Thriller.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Beyond the Smoke, the third installment of the Manhattan Sloane series, picks up six months after where From the Ashes leaves off. Similar to how I link Out of the Flames to From the Ashes, I grab onto the one loose end from the previous book and make that the driving force of this one.
I started with the premise: Is it possible to make a fresh start without first making peace with the past?
If you’ve lived long enough like I have, you’ve reached the point once or twice when the surrounding chaos is too much, and the only way forward is to hit the reset button. When that happened to me, I had the advantage of serving in the Air Force. Every three years, I picked up everything and moved to a new place and a new job. I found the job refreshing with each move, but I missed having roots—close friends and an extended family that I could count on.
I wanted to give Manhattan Sloane both, but not without stumbling blocks. After throwing everything at her in the first two books, she’s ready for that fresh start with Finn, Reagan, and a new career as a private investigator. I make the past—hers and Finn’s—her greatest obstacle. Sloane is my hero, so I give her the tools I never had that make it possible to clean the slate. The question is, does she use them to find her happily ever after?
To find out if Manhattan Sloane gets her fresh start, you’ll have to read Beyond the Smoke."
—Stacy Lynn Miller
Check out the book trailer for Beyond the Smoke.
Kaye C. - I was very engaged with all aspects of the story. There are many complexities going on; politics from the new mayor and the SFPD, relationships with previous partners, finding ways to balance work and family with an almost gown stepdaughter and of course trusting your new love interest. I like that Finn and Sloane balance and center each other. They don't try to be rogue but need to work the system to get the help they need and solve the case. As a couple they are loving and supportive but still have jealousy and family issues to deal with.
I think that this is for anyone who enjoys good police or P.I. crime dramas. Finn and Sloane are already a couple but time is given to developing their sapphic romance. This is the third in the series but enough background is given I was up to speed quickly. I'm so glad to have read this book and will look for more by Miller.
R. Swier - I loved these characters. Separately, Sloane and Finn were two dynamic intelligent women. Yet, when they worked together they became a force of one in thoughts and actions. Their personal lives, however, took on a bit more drama not only with each other, but also with Reagan and Finn’s relationship. The women handled these situations, especially Finn, exceedingly well. True to her nature, her actions were guided by intelligence and unconditional love. Sloane also had to deal with many emotional problems on different levels and with different people: Finn, Reagan, and Eric. Some of these problems she handled with care, others she nearly crossed the line. It was interesting how some parts reflected back to her time with Avery and the lessons about unconditional love in which Sloane now shared with Reagan. These scenes were very tender and heartwarming.
Since this was the third book in this series, I recommend reading the previous books to get an overall understanding of the characters and their background. The author did provide some past events to resurface, but the emotional scenes from the first two books should be experienced firsthand.
Betty H. - I loved the first two novels, but I think this one might be the best yet.
The third book continues the story of Manhattan Sloane, Finn, Reagan, and Eric fairly soon after the second book ends. Sloane and Finn have started their own private investigation firm hoping to leave behind the danger their former law enforcement occupations put them in. Unfortunately, danger follows them like smoke from a fire. They can’t seem to get away from it. This story is both a character and plot driven tale. The mystery and intrigue portion of this tale is extremely well-written and kept my interest throughout the novel. What really drew me to this book as well as the first two novels are the characters. I became invested in Sloane, Finn, and all the secondary characters in book one, and that investment has only increased with each novel. I’ve enjoyed all the mystery, excitement, action, and intrigue in the plots of these books, but I’ve fallen in love with these characters, and want to know what’s happening in their lives. This is the mark of an exceptionally talented author.
Bonnie A. - This was an enjoyable read. I thought the story was well-written. The main characters are likeable, determined and strong. I recommend you grab a copy. You won’t be disappointed. 4 stars
Leah M. - This is a good combination of both the romance and the thriller aspects. Sloane and Finn are growing closer but that doesn’t mean they don’t have issues. I liked that they were open and honest with each other. They’ve learned from their past mistakes and aren’t willing to let each other go despite what or who may try to come between them. The thriller/mystery was fun to read. It’s a cold case this time but it brings problems to their present and puts everyone’s lives on the line once again. This is told from several different point of views so the reader has more information than the characters did and I liked how that worked here. It made it especially rewarding to see it all come together in the end.
I highly recommend this series and that it be read in order. It’s got romance and intrigue in equal measure. It’s well written and gets better with each new release. Miller has said there will be more of Sloane and Finn in the future and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
Lex Kent’s Reviews - This was really good! This is the third book in Miller’s Manhattan Sloane Thriller series and is the best written book of the series. I was caught up in the mystery, it kept me turning the pages, but so did the romance. While the mains were together, we don’t know if they will stay together in this book. There was plenty of angst to go around and I had fun reading it. This is a series that I would highly suggest reading in order. There are storylines that weave through all three books and this book answered a good amount of questions that were left hanging from the first two books. Then there is the love story to consider. These books spend a good amount of time developing the relationship between the two mains so it really is worth following the whole story from the beginning.
San Francisco, California, twenty-two years ago
Nothing could have prepared thirteen-year-old Manhattan Sloane for the horror she witnessed weeks earlier on a twisty, foggy road. Her parents had died in a terrible, fiery crash, and the only life she knew burned up with them. In the aftermath, she’d been forced to live twenty miles away on the other side of the Bay Bridge with a grandmother she’d visited only once a year, but that wasn’t where she wanted to be. She wanted to be home.
Her new home, Nana’s suffocating, narrow, and cluttered townhouse, resembled nothing like the warm suburban ranch-style house she’d lived in since infancy. Without a yard to play in, Sloane spent her first afternoon in the only outdoor space available. The back deck wasn’t much, but its hypnotic view of the bay and the life she left behind on the other side of it provided several minutes of comfort when she needed something to latch onto.
As much as her grandmother tried to make her feel welcomed, Sloane couldn’t call her new surroundings home. She lived off the items she’d stuffed into the two suitcases Child Protective Services had allowed her to take the morning following the accident. For weeks, the plain soap and shampoo her grandmother had loaned her were poor substitutes. Even her bed was an afterthought. She slept on the living room couch for ten nights until movers brought her bed and other things from her family home. Having the easy chair her father had sat in to read the evening newspaper and the dresser where her mother had stacked freshly washed clothes failed to dull the sharp sting of losing her parents.
Her only comfort came from her seventh-grade yearbook from Juan Crespi Junior High. Sloane looked at the picture of Finn Harper, her only friend, every morning when she woke and every night before going to sleep. She longed to see the one girl who made her palms sweaty by merely walking into her orbit. The question became how to make it happen. Without a phone number or address to go on, she’d have to become a detective in order to inhale Finn’s sweet citrus scent again. Even if she tracked Finn down, she had another problem. Her grandmother didn’t have a car and took the bus everywhere. What if buses or the train couldn’t get her to Finn’s? Sloane was stuck in a place with no future and no way of reaching out to her past.
In two days, Monday, she would mark her first day at a new school several miles away from her new home, the same place where her grandmother worked as an administrator. Like the townhouse, the school was nothing that Sloane was used to. The buildings were two stories tall and squeezed together like sardines, unlike the spread-out ones at the school she’d attended with Finn. The campus here had asphalt for physical education class, which meant the softball mitt her father helped her break in one weekend would now collect dust.
“What does it matter?” Sloane shoved the mitt underneath her bed, burying along with it the memory of the one fun thing she ever did with her dad. “It’s not like I’d make any friends if they even had a team.”
A knock on the door meant her grandmother wanted to tell her something. The only thing Sloane wanted to hear was that she’d been in a bad dream and all she had to do was wake up to have her old life back. When the door creaked opened after another knock and her grandmother poked her head inside, Sloane stabbed a brush through her long, thick brown hair to sweep away her ever-increasing frustration.
“Honey?” Her grandmother’s voice was barely audible, frustrating Sloane even more.
“What?” Sloane barked without looking.
“You have a visitor.”
Sloane froze. Who would visit her? No one knew she lived there. Her mind raced, picking at the possibilities. Could it be? Did that one special girl find her? “Is it Finn?”
Waiting for a response would’ve taken two or three precious seconds, time better spent running to greet her only friend in the world. She darted past her nana, feet pounding the stairs two at a time until she reached the top. “Finn?”
Bright afternoon sunlight silhouetted a figure standing near the sliding glass door leading to the deck. Every muscle tingled. It had to be Finn. The person stepped forward out of the blinding light. Her heart sank. The visitor was too tall and box-shaped to be Finn. Another step and a man came into focus. He wasn’t in the uniform he wore when Sloane first had met him two weeks ago, but she recognized his kind face. His jeans and olive-green twill jacket worked well with his chiseled, light-skinned jaw and trimmed auburn hair. “Bernie?”
“It’s good to see you again, Sloane.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I told you I’d check on you, and I keep my promises.” He closed within a step and placed both hands on her shoulders.
The night of the accident she wasn’t sure how long she’d lingered roadside before Bernie scooped her into his arms and placed her in the backseat of his patrol cruiser. Numbed by watching the wreckage of her family car burn with her parents’ bodies still inside, she’d welcomed his comforting arm while the fire trucks drenched the flames. As paramedics tended to the cuts on her hands she’d sustained when she failed to pry her mother loose from the devastation, he gave her a reassuring nod. When she refused to ride in the CPS woman’s car, he drove her to the emergency foster care home. And before he left, he’d kneeled in front of her and promised to check on her when he could.
Today he did. Sloane’s father had made one promise after another to spend time with her but rarely followed through. Bernie kept his promise, however, making her feel less sad for the first time since the accident.
“I didn’t think you’d come.” Sloane wanted to grin, but she couldn’t. She wanted Finn.
Bernie’s face softened with a sympathetic smile. “Why would you think that? How have you been doing?” When she lowered her head and shrugged, Bernie bent at the knees to look her in the eyes. “How about lunch, young lady?”
“I’d like that.” When her eyes met his, she got a wild idea. He was a police officer. Maybe he could find Finn. But before she could ask, her nana’s voice wheezed from the top of the stairs.
“You’re a hard one to keep up with.”
Bernie dashed over to offer his arm. “Loraine, would you like to join us for lunch?”
“That’s sweet of you, but those stairs tuckered me out. Why don’t you two go for a bite at The Tap? It’s right down the street.”
Phew! The last thing she wanted was an annoying grandmother around when she talked to Bernie. Maybe he’d agree to help her find Finn. Maybe Finn’s parents would take pity on her and let her live with them. Any house in El Sobrante had to be better than this jail cell.
Following a short walk, Sloane and Bernie found a prime seat at the neighborhood pub and grill. Minutes later, the owner, who also doubled as bartender and server during peak hours, delivered their meals. The smell of freshly grilled burgers masked the stale scent of fryer grease wafting in from the kitchen.
“Extra pickles. Just the way you like it.” Dylan placed Sloane’s dish on the table in front of her.
Rubbing her hands together, she inspected her burger and fries and then Dylan’s hippie-style ponytail and three-day stubble. He was the one bright spot of her otherwise dismal new life. “Thanks, D.”
Dylan paused, cocked his head a few times as if shaking his memory loose before laying the other plate down. “And extra fries for Officer Bernie.”
“Excellent memory. This looks great.” Bernie accepted the ketchup bottle from Sloane and squirted a small red blob on the edge of his plate. “Thanks, Dylan.”
“I’m pulling double duty today, so if you need anything else, wave me down.” Dylan wiped his hands on his lightly stained white apron and gave Sloane a playful wink before sliding behind the bar.
She ate in silence and let the rock music Dylan had playing in the background fill the awkward void. While savoring the complementary flavors of pickles, raw white onions, and cheddar cheese mixed with a tangy sauce, she sized up Bernie. Did he visit all the kids he saved? Or did he consider her special? Either way, he made her feel that way.
Bernie soon swallowed the last bite of his burger, wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and tossed it in the center of his plate. “I hear you start school on Monday, where your grandmother works. I think that’s great. You already have someone there that you know.”
She shrugged again, unsure how to respond without sounding like an uncaring brat. Other than Nana having a long-term feud with her father, she knew nothing about her grandmother. “Yeah, I guess.”
“When I started with the police department a few years ago, we had to move. My daughter was about your age. It took her a few weeks, but she eventually made more friends than she had in the old place.” Finally, something to give Sloane a little hope. “She told me the best thing about the move was that her new algebra class was weeks behind her old school, and the teacher thought she was a genius.”
“Maybe, but I only had one friend.” Sloane lowered her eyes, wondering where Finn was and if this was a good time to ask Bernie for his help.
“A pretty girl like you? You must be shy.”
Shy wasn’t it. She wasn’t like the other girls. They only talked about makeup and clothes or how cute the boys were. Like Finn, she was interested in sports and singing. Should she ask? She opened her mouth to do so but stopped.
“You know, you can ask me anything.”
“Can…” Her voice wavered, but she dug deep for an extra ounce of courage. “Can you help me find my friend at my old school?”
“Sure, Sloane. What’s her name?”
Sloane’s breath caught in hope. If he could find Finn, she was sure everything would be all right. “It’s Finn Harper, but I don’t know where she lives.”
“That’s okay. You went to Juan Crespi, right?” Sloane nodded hard enough to give herself a headache. He added, “I can get her address and home number through the school. I’ll pass them along to your grandmother.”
Sloane averted her eyes.
“Is that not okay?”
“Nana doesn’t have a car.”
“Maybe Finn can visit you.”
Her stomach knotted on the thousand reasons Finn couldn’t, or worse, wouldn’t visit. Nothing was going right, and she thought nothing would ever again.
“Or, if your grandmother says it’s okay, how about I take you on my next visit?”
“Really?” For the first time since the accident, Sloane’s lips turned up in a genuine smile. Despite the horrible events that brought her to him, this kind man made her believe that everything would be all right.
“It would be my pleasure.”
* * *
That hour at The Tap, combined with Bernie’s weekly phone calls since, had taught Sloane one thing: fathers can keep promises. While homework over those three weeks kept her mind off the unbearable wait to visit Finn, school hadn’t. Not one girl had made an overture to becoming friends. One blonde, though, with thick wisps trimmed around the ears like Finn had caught her eye in English class. But when Sloane worked up the courage to say hello, she discovered the girl wasn’t worth her interest. Not one bit. She didn’t have Finn’s kind disposition and ability to put her at ease. Nor did she have a smile that made her feel like it was meant only for her. In fact, the girl was downright mean. That was it. Making friends wasn’t in the cards.
This Saturday was the day, and the anticipation of finally seeing Finn had her springing from bed the instant sunbeams warmed her face—a first without an annoying alarm. She selected the perfect shirt and jeans and added the new denim jacket her grandmother had bought at a store near her school. Once dressed, she bolted up to the top stair where an alluring whiff of bacon drew her into the kitchen. “That smells great, Nana. Do you want me to get the plates out?”
“That would be great, honey.” Nana paused from whisking the egg mixture. A slow-forming grin meant one thing: Sloane’s first offer to lend a hand made her happy.
As if she’d been doing it for years, Sloane opened the cabinet neighboring the stove, retrieved the plates, and set the table. “Would you like orange juice, Nana?”
“That would be nice, Sloane.” One of Nana’s eyebrows rose to an exaggerated arch, putting a smile on Sloane’s face.
At the small, rickety dining table, Sloane ate quicker than her grandmother. She chatted about Officer Bernie and her upcoming visit with Finn. He’d left a brief message on the answering machine earlier in the week, saying he’d pick her up first thing, ending it with, “Let’s surprise Finn this Saturday.” Sloane sat sentinel on the top stair leading down to the entry landing after clearing the table, bouncing a leg up and down like a piston.
After five agonizing minutes, her grandmother joined Sloane, standing near the step. “Why don’t you wait for Bernie on the driveway? Just let me know when you two are about to take off.”
“Thank you, Nana.” Sloane gave her a quick peck on the cheek—another first. Before lunging toward the front door, she didn’t take the time to consider the show of affection, other than it felt like she’d turned a corner.
An hour had gone by and then another while Sloane sat on the curb. Her excitement waned in the first hour, and disappointment formed in the second. The one thing that kept her interest was a smoke plume billowing over the rooftops and a cacophony of sirens blasting several blocks away. Likely a house fire, she thought. She didn’t turn angry until her grandmother came out and sat next to her on the sidewalk.
Nana placed a hand on Sloane’s back. Intended to comfort, it had the opposite effect. Sloane balled her fists and pressed them against her chin.
“Honey, why don’t you come inside? I’m sure he got tied up at work and will call soon.”
“He’s not coming.” Sloane stomped all the way to her room and fell on her bed facedown, screaming curse words into her pillow. “He lied,” repeated in her head. She wouldn’t see Finn today, nor any other day.
The next morning, a knock on her bedroom door woke her. “Go away!” she yelled before stuffing a pillow over her head. Talking was the last thing she wanted. Bernie had never showed, and she’d been holed up in her room ever since, refusing to come up for dinner.
The door slid open. Nana walked in, her face pale and eyes puffy red. A tear streaked her cheek and dripped to the half-folded newspaper she held in her hand. “Honey, I have terrible news.” She moved to the bed and sat next to Sloane.
Sloane’s empty stomach growled, making her queasier than she was yesterday when Bernie had disappointed her.
Her grandmother unfolded the newspaper to reveal the front page. A picture of Bernie in his uniform with the American flag behind his right shoulder, capturing his gentle smile, was emblazoned across the top. Above the photo in large black print read the headline: Off-Duty Officer Killed. She scanned a few words that hailed him as a hero who’d died trying to save a woman trapped in a burning Hunter’s Point home before fire trucks arrived.
“Nooooo!” It had happened again. Sloane’s body choked at the realization everyone around her was dying in a fire. She couldn’t shake the feeling she’d become a death magnet.
Her grandmother wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her tight against her bosom. Nana’s soft voice spoke reassuring words but did little to soothe the sense of doom bubbling in her gut. She shook her head, hoping to cast off the plague of death besieging her, but nothing worked. She pushed Nana away and hurried across the room.
“No! I’m cursed.” Sloane pulled at her hair. Her mind focused on death and flames and nothing else. “Everyone around me dies.” Nana walked toward her, but Sloane called out, “No! Stay away.”
Her grandmother didn’t listen. She rubbed Sloane’s arms. “Honey, what happened to your parents was horrible, but they didn’t die because you’re cursed. It was an accident. And Bernie died trying to save someone.”
“No, I tell you.” Sloane shook her head with the force of a tornado. “I was the reason he was in that neighborhood. Bernie was coming to see me. If I hadn’t wanted to see my friend, he’d be alive. I can’t do this to you. Or to Finn.”
“Listen to me.” Her grandmother’s voice grew stern as she tightened her grip on Sloane’s arms. “Your father punished me by keeping you away from me as much as possible. I’m not going to let anything separate us again.”
Sloane’s head stilled. She stared at her grandmother, having never understood the feud between mother and son. “Why would he want to punish you?”
“Because I sent his father away when he was young. He grew up, thinking I hated his father.”
“Why would you send him away?”
“Because he beat me.” Nana loosened her grip but kept her hands on Sloane’s arms. “I took it twice, but not a third time.”
“Is he alive?”
“No, child.” Her grandmother shook her head slowly. “He drank himself to death years ago.”
Why didn’t anyone tell Sloane her dad grew up without a father? How ironic. He resented his mother for having no father, yet he worked so much Sloane didn’t have one either.
“Listen to me, young lady. You are not cursed. I am not afraid to have you close. I’ve wanted to be a part of your life since the day you were born. We’re all we have left.” Nana pulled her into an embrace. “I love you, Manhattan Sloane.”
Sloane pressed her head against her grandmother’s frail shoulder and whimpered, “Thank you, Nana.” She was a long way off from saying, “I love you,” but for the first time, it felt possible. Tears dampened both their eyes. Sloane considered this the moment they became a family.
After dinner, while walking back from The Tap, Nana asked, “Would you like me to find your friend?”
Even if her grandmother was right, that she wasn’t cursed, Sloane couldn’t take a chance with Finn. Premonitions of doom haunted Sloane every step home, convincing her she couldn’t risk the flames taking the one good thing left from her life before the accident. It was settled. Those hazel eyes would remain in the past.
“No, Nana. It’s not important anymore.”
San Francisco, California, present day
Stiff wind bit at Manhattan Sloane’s cheeks and whipped long brown strands of hair from her ponytail. She drew in damp, briny air while taking in the white-capped waves beating the rocky shoreline of Lands End. Spectacular views of the bay like this one had comforted her the first summer following her parents’ deaths. It was home. The word echoed in her head—home. Over the years, she never had thought she could feel more connected to anything, but the last five months, when she and Finn had become lovers following the kidnapping and rescue of their family members, had proved her wrong. San Francisco was home, but Finn Harper was her heart.
The thick picnic blanket Finn had thrown down near the edge of the cliffs softened the ground enough that Sloane barely felt the small pebbles through the thinning fabric of her favorite, well-worn blue jeans. She zipped her denim jacket further up to block the wind’s chill before folding her knees close to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. A glance confirmed that Finn, sitting a foot away, was staring at the same remarkable scene and seemingly in the same trance Sloane had been in for the last few minutes. Even from that distance, Sloane felt her pull.
Sloane didn’t have to wonder what her life would be like if her path and Finn’s hadn’t crossed again. She knew the answer. The fear of death would be gripping her. She’d be fearing everyone close to her would die in flames, like her parents and Bernie and her dear sweet wife, Avery. She’d be worrying the same fate would take her teenage stepdaughter, Reagan. That she’d either hold her at arm’s length or ship her off to her grandparents—to the Tenneys, not the homophobic Santoses. Assholes, she thought. Luiz and Maria still had her panties twisted following their bitter custody and adoption battles.
Her rock now, Finn kept her anchored to the shoreline. Sloane didn’t expect that leaving the San Francisco Police Department and navigating a new career would have so many twists and turns. But amid the uncertainty of getting their private investigation firm off the ground, Finn, with her experience as an executive in the Drug Enforcement Agency, kept them moving forward.
Sloane turned toward her new source of calm to focus on Finn’s profile. An involuntary deep intake of salty air filled her chest with the same sense of peace she’d felt every morning for the last three months since Finn moved in. From Reagan to her career to her home, every thread of her new life had Finn’s fingerprints on it. But if she had to pick the best part of her day, waking up next to this beautiful creature had become it. A late sleeper, Finn never woke before her, which, like now, provided several blissful minutes of taking in the soft curves of her face.
“I love family Sundays with you.”
“I do too.” The corners of Finn’s lips stretched wide, forcing her nose to scrunch like it used to do in junior high. In an instant, Sloane knew that smile was meant for her. “You’ve been quiet since I told you Kadin wants to buy my condo. Are you concerned?”
“About you? No. Realistic about Kadin? Yes. She wants you back.”
“Wanting and having are two distinct things.” Finn leaned in. “You had me the day you walked back into my life.”
Sloane’s upper lip tingled at the thought of stealing another kiss like she did this morning before Finn opened her eyes in bed. She tilted her head forward to do just that, but Reagan’s voice came up behind her, forcing that kiss to wait. “I’m starved. Anyone else ready to eat?”
“About a hundred stairs ago.” Chandler Harper rubbed the sixty-year-old muscles of his right leg to ease what must have been a monstrous cramp. While running on his treadmill kept Finn’s father in decent shape, it didn’t prepare him well to hike the steep trails of Lands End.
Damn it. “You owe me a kiss.” Sloane pulled back, wishing Reagan and Chandler had taken the long trail on their hike down the cliffside instead of the shorter one.
“Deal.” Finn rose to her knees, retrieved the backpack behind her, and laid out the food containers.
“I guess those two-mile jogs haven’t paid off, Gramps.” Reagan smirked before she picked at the food.
“You’ll never stop calling me that, won’t you?” Chandler shook his head in a lighthearted retort.
“Nope.” Reagan added a mischievous wink.
Since they had been kidnapped by the cartel, the playfulness between Reagan and Chandler had grown into a thing. Within hours of their terrifying rescue, they had begun needling each other and they had kept it up since. Sloane suspected they fell into it as a coping mechanism after their ordeal. Whatever the reason, it had helped Reagan work through the trauma, and she seemed no worse for the wear. For that, Chandler had her gratitude.
“You two will drive each other nuts by the end of summer.” Sloane dove into the grapes and cheese they’d packed for their family day hike. She weighed the possibility that Reagan’s summer internship at Chandler’s law firm might be a well-intended mistake.
“A challenge I look forward to beginning tomorrow.” Chandler raised an eyebrow at Reagan, throwing down the gauntlet.
“You’re on, Gramps.” Reagan joined Chandler in a high-five. Definitely a bad idea. Before Reagan started tomorrow, Sloane would have to talk to her about professionalism inside the office versus the familiarity of family outside.
While they ate, Chandler and Reagan continued their spirited banter, and Sloane soaked in the majestic power of the ocean beat. The rhythm of the waves came and went in a soothing pattern. Sloane soon closed her eyes and reached for Finn’s hand. Together, their pulses matched the slow beating of the whitecaps. Home and heart were one.
Moments later, a vibration in Sloane’s coat pocket, accompanied by a muffled musical chime, alerted her to an incoming phone call. Back to reality. She and Finn had only a handful of clients with their new investigation firm, and each expected the Sloane-Harper Group to answer their call, even on Sunday. Though, the six-month-long contract they won last week thankfully meant taking on no more clients until it expired. In another week or two, they’d be down to a single client—the City of San Francisco.
Casting her gaze toward the water again, Sloane let out a breathy sigh before fishing out her phone. “This is Sloane.”
“Hi, Sloane. It’s Morgan West.”
“Morgan? This is a pleasant surprise.” The personal call from her old boss picked up Sloane’s mood.
“Do you have time to talk?”
“I’d love to, but we’re on a family outing.”
“This is important. It’s about your city contract.” Morgan’s voice contained the same level of concern she had for Sloane following Avery’s death. Sloane’s antenna went up.
After giving Finn’s hand a firm squeeze, Sloane snapped her stare toward her. “What about our contract?” Finn’s eyes widened.
“I think you should know what’s in store for you. Can we meet somewhere today?”
“Finn and I are at Lands End.”
“I’m not that far from there. Can we meet you, say in thirty minutes?”
“Thirty minutes.” Sloane gave Finn a questioning look. “We can meet you at the top. There’s a café.” Sloane muffled the phone into her chest and asked Finn, “What’s the name of that place?”
“I think it’s The Lookout.”
Sloane nodded her concurrence and lifted the phone again. “It’s called The Lookout Café. We’ll start hiking up now.”
After Morgan disconnected, Sloane filled in the others, and Chandler agreed to take Reagan on the last segment of the hike while she and Finn took their meeting. Sloane helped Finn pack away the picnic, recalling Morgan had said, “we.” Who were we? Now her interest was really piqued.
Finn took the lead, following a gravel trail, most times wide enough for two people, other times only wide enough to walk single file. The mile trek brought them through areas of thick brush and others with weeds trimmed back. In between, several sets of steep wooden stairs dug into the hillside tested Sloane’s ankle. Though healed from the nasty break in the explosion that killed her wife, it still stiffened with overuse. Trailing behind, Sloane struggled to keep up. “I think our next hike should be on flatter ground.”
Finn glanced over her shoulder and stopped to let Sloane catch up. “Are you okay, babe?”
“A little sore.” When Sloane reached the same step as Finn, she checked the pathway to make sure no one was approaching from either direction. She shifted the backpack containing the picnic food on her shoulder and snaked an arm around Finn’s waist, pulling her in close. “I’ll take that kiss now.”
Finn’s answer was in the form of another nose-scrunching smile.
Two inches taller than Finn in flat sneakers, Sloane placed a hand under Finn’s chin and pulled her face closer. Her heart, still beating fast from the climb, fluttered when their lips touched. Finn’s were cold from damp air, but they quickly warmed when Sloane pressed harder and wrapped her arm tighter. The orange scent of Finn’s shampoo from earlier this morning had faded, replaced by salty sweat. It still sparked a desire to prolong the kiss. She parted her lips, inviting Finn to do the same, and then sent her tongue searching for its mate. The moment they touched, a twinge rippled her abdomen.
Breaking the kiss was the last thing Sloane wanted. She wanted much more. She wanted Finn’s body to warm the rest of her and feel her skin to skin, but more would have to wait until later. Much later. After a reluctant sigh, Sloane pulled back.
“Wow.” Finn’s eyes stayed closed, but her mouth remained parted.
“We’ll continue this later.”
At the top of the hillside, the narrow gravel trail widened into pavement and the foot-traffic thickened, both signs the parking lot and café were nearby. Then Sloane recognized Morgan’s cream-colored Camry, parked close to the building.
“She’s here.” Following a quick scan of the empty car, Sloane added, “She must be inside.”
Sloane and Finn entered the café. Given that it had no tables or chairs, the owners should have labeled their establishment a food stand. The only place for patrons to rest their drinks and sandwiches was a series of counters not designed to accommodate a full meal that lined a thirty-foot-long wall of windows. Still, the space offered a beautiful view of the ocean.
At the far end, Sloane spotted Morgan’s shoulder-length graying blond hair. Despite their three-year acquaintance, this marked the first time she’d seen Morgan in jeans and a dark peacoat. Casual clothes suited her well.
As she drew closer, Sloane recognized the bobbed black hair on the woman standing next to Morgan. Assistant District Attorney Kyler Harris looked as good in jeans and a casual coat. So, they were a thing. They made a handsome couple.
Sloane jabbed Finn in the ribs with an elbow. “Kyler’s here, too.”
“You were right. Good for them.”
When Kyler ran a hand down Morgan’s arm, the tender touch all but confirmed Sloane’s suspicion. Morgan turned around. “Sloane. Finn. Thanks for coming.” Following a round of hugs, Morgan offered Sloane and Finn each a paper cup with a plastic lid. “Hope you like latté.”
“This is great, thank you.” Sloane sipped, wrapping her hands around the cup to draw warmth into her chilled fingertips. Finn did the same. “You said this was about our contract.”
“I think you should know what you’ve gotten yourself into.” Morgan’s narrowed brow suggested more than a passing concern, which simultaneously troubled and elated Sloane. The prospect of being in some sort of tight spot for her and Finn’s first big contract was worrisome. Morgan, however, was bothering to warn her, which spoke to an affinity beyond their previous working relationship. They weren’t merely former colleagues. They were becoming friends.
“We know looking into the department’s cold cases will ruffle a few feathers.” Sloane’s concern drifted to Morgan. Was this where she was going? Was she concerned her and Finn’s work would make her look bad?
“The new mayor wants to use your contract to do a lot more than ruffle feathers. She wants to clean house.”
“She did run on a platform to hold the police more accountable for the use of force.” Finn’s reply knocked a memory loose in Sloane about Nicci Cole’s mayoral campaign. Finn had followed the special election a lot closer than Sloane, who avoided politics as if it would give her herpes.
“She has a lot more planned.” Morgan’s pursed lips didn’t bode well. “My contacts tell me she wants to dismantle department management and promote those who support her agenda.”
“Which is?” Sloane’s spidey senses were up. The vibe she got of Mayor Cole in her campaign ads was not one friendly to police.
“Only enforce victim crimes.” Kyler’s reddened face hinted at agitation, a reaction Sloane had observed on a rare occasion when the stakes were high, like when Reagan’s and Chandler’s lives hung in the balance. “She did the same thing when she was the District Attorney. If she had her way, vice, narcotics, and the gang task force would be history.”
“That’s insane. All those things lead to more crimes and more victims.” Sloane’s neck tingled as a disquieting hidden agenda took form. She and Finn were being set up.
“But we’ve been hired to review cold cases with victims. How does our work tie into the mayor’s agenda?” Finn’s stare bounced between Morgan and Kyler, but Sloane already knew the answer. She’d seen local politics at work in the previous administration—smear and blame everyone and everything for a long-standing mess.
“Incompetence is my guess.” Morgan’s face turned expressionless as if politics had drained all the joy she had for the job. “The SFPD has the highest cold case rate in the state. If you two solve even a fraction of the open cases, that’s all the excuse the mayor will need to justify a complete overhaul of the department.”
“So, if we do our job, half the investigations division will be out of theirs.” Sloane ticked off in her head the names of detectives who didn’t have a safety net. She counted at least two dozen in vice and narcotics alone. None of this was what she had in mind for the Sloane-Harper Group’s first big government contract. If they defaulted on the project to protect her former colleagues, the city would simply rebid the contract. There had to be a way to neutralize the mayor while getting the job done, but she had no idea where to start.
“But if we don’t do our job, our firm likely won’t survive the hit.” Sloane stared out the window to glimpse at the ocean water to calm her bubbling ire. She and Finn were pawns in a high-stakes political game, and she didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“I hate this as much as you do, Sloane.” Morgan briefly placed a comforting hand on her arm. “Expect resistance. Captain Nash has his eye on a deputy chief position, and he can get nasty when he feels threatened. And you and Finn threaten him.”
“How about you? You could lose your job.” The coffee in Sloane’s stomach soured at her dilemma.
“I’m retirement eligible and never had aspirations of making captain or higher, so this only speeds up my plans. I’m worried, though, about the detectives who don’t have their twenty in yet, like Eric Decker. If he’s laid off instead of forced into early medical retirement, he’ll lose his health insurance when he needs it the most.”
A swell of sadness settled in Sloane’s throat at her old partner’s name. She hadn’t seen him since the day she adopted Reagan and he dropped off a life-shifting gift. From reading the scrapbook he gave her, she learned that he’d kept an eye on her most of her life after her parents’ accident. But that devotion didn’t make up for him having played a part in their deaths. Tentatively, Sloane asked, “Have you partnered Eric up yet?”
Morgan furrowed her brow. “I’m surprised you don’t know. He returns to modified duty tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s to be expected.” Her old partner never liked being a straphanger. He preferred being the first one through the door. Sitting behind a desk, analyzing reports, crossing T’s and dotting I’s and doing the computer legwork for other detectives would drive him bat shit crazy. “Just don’t stick him with Wilson when he’s cleared. He’s slower than molasses.”
“You really don’t know.” Morgan frowned. “That round he took in the chest at Three Owls Vineyard did permanent damage to his left arm. He’ll never work the field again and will ride a desk until he qualifies for medical retirement. Unless the mayor gets her way.”
The news sucker-punched Sloane in the gut. She might no longer trust Eric after learning he kept the truth from her about her parents’ accident, but she still cared about him. She never wanted him to be permanently disabled, and she sure as hell didn’t want him to lose his health insurance because of her.
“Thanks for the heads-up, Morgan.” Sloane swallowed the dry lump in her throat. She reminded herself that broken trust tore her and Eric apart. He was the reason she was an orphan and hid that fact for years. That meant he was no longer her problem.
“Watch your back, Sloane.” Morgan’s expression hinted that she suspected trouble wasn’t just something to be expected, but inevitable.