Looking for a summer read now the long holidays are here? Then look no further! I am very lucky to have been given a tantalising extract by Choc Lit to share with you on my blog. Summer in San Remo is a fun holiday read with a hint of mystery…
Running her busy concierge service usually keeps Cassie Travers fully
occupied. But when a new client offers her the strangest commission she’s ever handled she suddenly finds herself on the cusp of an Italian adventure, with a man she thought she would never see again.
Jake McQuire has returned from the States to his family-run detective agency. When old flame Cassie appears in need of help with her mysterious client, who better than Jake to step in?
Events take the pair across Europe to a luxurious villa on the Italian Riviera. There, Cassie finds that the mystery she pursues pales into insignificance, when compared to another discovery made along the way …
Cassie Travers had handled a few unusual commissions in her time, but this one took the prize for the strangest.
She bounded up the last two steps, red hair flying, and threw open the door of her office with a flourish.
‘I have to have a husband by tomorrow morning!’
Benita Wells, her best friend and sole employee, gave her a narrow-eyed look. ‘Anyone’s in particular?’
‘I’m open to suggestions.’
Cassie bounced into a chair, green eyes glowing. She felt wonderful. The view from the window, of Bath’s sloping streets of honey-coloured stone, was magical, even in the rain. Everything was wonderful. They had a new job. An interesting job. There’s even an outside chance we might make some money.
Benita swivelled around to look her over. Cassie grinned. The grin was her secret weapon. She used it on clients, estate agents, car mechanics. If you could get the target to smile back, you were halfway home.
Unfortunately, it rarely worked on Benita.
Cassie knew what was coming. They’d been doing this routine ever since primary school. Bennie was the straight guy and voice of reason.
‘You left here for a meeting – what, an hour ago?’ Benita demanded. ‘Now you’re getting married? Did I miss something?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Only you, Cass!’
‘Stop making me sound like some sort of flake! We have a new client – Gerald Benson.’
‘He has a really simple job for us. All I have to do is fix myself up with a husband, by tomorrow.’
‘That’s simple?’ Benita moved a file from one side of her desk to the other, with ominous calm. ‘Look, I hate to break this to you, Cass, but I think it takes a little longer than twenty-four hours to arrange a wedding, even if you’ve got a man in mind. Which I know you haven’t.’
‘I might have.’ Cassie pouted, swinging her legs.
Benita blew out a breath, ruffling her fringe. ‘Honey, when there’s a man in your life, the whole world knows about it. You sing. Under your breath. All the time!’
‘I do?’ Cassie stopped swinging, startled.
‘Yes. It’s a testament to the excellence of my temper that you still live. If you want to continue to do so, you’d better tell me what the hell you’ve got us into now, and why you need a husband to do it. What does this man Benson want us to source for him?’
‘Nothing. Yeah, I know.’ Cassie held up her hand. ‘That’s what the agency is supposed to do, but not this time. This is different.’
‘Cassie – we don’t do different. We agreed when we set the business up that we wouldn’t take jobs that didn’t fit the brief. We don’t take just any old odd job. We’re a concierge service.’
‘A damn good one.’
Benita waved aside the interruption, refusing to be distracted. ‘We source goods and services for people who don’t have the resources or the time to do it for themselves. If this guy Benson doesn’t want restaurant reservations, or a butler, or a new house, or tickets for the centre court at Wimbledon, he’s not for us.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Cassie sighed. ‘But that was before the not-so-petty cash went missing.’ Stolen. It was stolen. Cassie scooped her hair away from her face. ‘We’re up against it, Bennie. Right now, a job is a job. Any job. This is strictly a one-off – Benson and his wife have been left a house by a reclusive uncle, who was very keen on the sanctity of marriage. There are conditions that have to be fulfilled, to prove that the Bensons are a loving couple and worthy of inheriting. It was Benson’s childhood home. If he doesn’t deliver, it goes to a distant cousin who wants to knock it down.’ Cassie speeded up before the objection that was brewing on Benita’s face made it out of her mouth. ‘The problem is, Mrs Benson is into mountain climbing. Ten days ago she went off with her sister to climb Ben Nevis or something. Benson doesn’t know where she is, and the first condition happens tomorrow.’
‘So …’ Benita frowned. ‘He wants us to find her?’
‘No-ooo.’ Cassie pursed her lips. This was the tricky bit. ‘He …’ There was no easy way to do this. She plunged in headlong. ‘Uh … He wants me to be her. Just for tomorrow, to collect some papers. He wants me, and my husband, to pretend to be them, while he goes off to find the real Mrs B, and brings her back as soon as possible.’
‘Well!’ Benita exhaled loudly, opened her mouth, shut it, then opened it again. ‘Cassie, that is the most outrageous load of bull I’ve ever heard in my life!’
‘Yes, I thought so too,’ Cassie agreed. ‘I was about to walk out. That was when he mentioned the fee.’
She delved into her bag and produced a banker’s draft, putting it down carefully on the desk.
Benita’s eyes nearly fell out of her head when she read the amount.
‘That’s … that’s …’
‘Incredible,’ Cassie helped her out. ‘I know, but it’s legitimate. I rang the bank. There are enough funds to cover it.’
‘The cheque might be legitimate, but the job can’t be.’ Benita shook her head slowly. ‘No one pays money like that for something so stupid. It has to be something else. Something big and nasty. Drugs, money laundering – or worse.’
‘Yes. And I would really like to know what.’
‘Hey! Come on! This is way beyond our pay grade. We shouldn’t be touching it with a ten foot pole!’
‘If we don’t do it, someone else will.’ Cassie tapped the cheque. ‘This money is good. We need it. I propose we do the job, but we also try to find out what Benson is up to.’
‘No way! You could get hurt. You could get arrested. You could get me arrested!’
Cassie puffed out her lower lip. ‘I can take care of myself.’
Benita looked sceptical. ‘Cassie, you do realise that doing this job involves helping someone commit fraud?’
Cassie pouted. ‘Only a little, little bit.’ She held her finger and thumb up, to illustrate just how little.
The set of Benita’s mouth told her how much she wasn’t convinced. ‘Still fraud.’
Cassie’s bravado collapsed abruptly. ‘You think I don’t know that?’
She cast a quick glance around the office. The premises were rented, the furniture and technology very definitely pre-loved, but everything here represented years of dreams, followed by months of hard work. Panic squeezed her heart. Now their successful enterprise was under threat from lack of funds. They had serious cash flow problems. And if they had to give it up …
Could she still manage to carry on, somehow? Hold the business together using the old computer on the tiny kitchen table of her flat? She closed her eyes for a moment. If she had to …
But what if this whole thing is genuine?
‘If it was only about Benson inheriting some money, I wouldn’t think of it.’ She really hoped that was true. ‘But this was his childhood home. Where he grew up. He’s clearly loaded and willing to pay stupid money to keep it away from the nasty cousin. You didn’t see him, Bennie. There were tears in his eyes when he spoke about the place.’
‘So now you think he’s for real?’ Benita gave out a frustrated huff.
‘I don’t know!’ Cassie didn’t hide her own frustration. ‘It all sounds mad, and suspicious as hell. But maybe, just maybe, it is real. Maybe that’s why it’s so mad. Tomorrow is only the first step. He’ll be able to fulfil all the other conditions with the real Mrs B, if we can help him with this …’ She shifted in her chair. Is it worth it? ‘I don’t know why he picked us. But he did, and that might just save us from going under. And if it’s not real, then it’s something big, you said that yourself.’
A shiver ran along her spine and settled in her stomach. Why had Benson selected them? It wasn’t pleasant to think that someone believed she was desperate enough to bend the law, even if only in a small way. She’d always been scrupulously honest in her dealing with clients and the business community, and so far she’d managed to keep the full extent of their financial problems from common knowledge too.
Does someone suspect something?
With an effort she shook away the feeling of a shadow tiptoeing over her grave. ‘If the thing is criminal. More criminal,’ she amended, when she saw Benita’s face. ‘Then what we’re doing is investigation. And we are absolutely the best people to do it. It’s the only way to find out more about Benson. He’s invited us into his scheme, after all. If we do the job and find out more, then we can take the whole thing to the authorities.’ She sighed. ‘We’ll probably lose Benson’s money, but maybe there will be a reward, or something.’ She tilted her head inquiringly at Benita.
‘Inspector Brown,’ Benita said decisively. ‘We tell him. He owes us one, after he sent us that woman who’d lost her Great Dane.’
The two women looked at each other and shuddered simultaneously.
‘Good call,’ Cassie approved, as soon as she’d recovered.
‘Huh!’ Benita aimed an accusing finger at Cassie. ‘I vowed I’d never even think about that case again. It should have been a lesson to both of us. That was a job we should never have taken.’
‘But the lady was very grateful when we found him. And she did stay and help clean up the office.’
‘Yes, she did. And paid up promptly, with a bonus on top,’ Benita admitted, laughing. Then her face sobered. ‘Seriously, Cass, I think you should put that cheque from Benson in an envelope and send it straight back. Tell him we don’t want his job or his money.’
‘Mmm.’ Cassie shook her head. ‘The trouble is, we do.’ The euphoria that had wafted her back from the meeting with Gerald Benson had all but evaporated. ‘I know it’s scary, but we do need this cash. We’re going to have a hard time keeping the business afloat with what we make from finding hot tickets and collecting dry cleaning. What with the utility bills and next quarter’s rent due.’ She fingered the cheque. ‘Look, let’s just say that we consider it as a short-term loan until we get back in the black? We won’t touch it unless we absolutely have to, but it will be there if we really need it.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘Of course, absolutely the best thing would be to get our stolen funds back from that toad, Jason Fairbrook.’
Cassie’s stomach was tying itself into a knot. It always did when she thought of Jason. Her hands itched too – to wrap themselves around his neck and squeeze. She’d given him her heart and the keys to the safe. He’d broken one and emptied the other.
She’d moped for three weeks.
Now all she wanted was to hunt down the good-looking, sexy cheat and get back what he’d stolen. She was working on it, between paying customers. He’d let slip once that his aunt had a place in the South of France that he visited often. I am going to catch up with you, Fairbrook. And when I do …
‘I know we have a cash flow problem, but this doesn’t feel right,’ Benita persisted. ‘We shouldn’t be taking this money.’
Cassie dragged her mind away from her dismal taste in men. ‘Look, sweetie, we both have some funny little habits, like needing to eat regularly. If we don’t get cash soon, there’s a real danger the firm will go belly up. In the grand scheme of things we don’t need a vast sum to keep going, but you know the bank won’t help.’ Cassie ground her teeth. She’d provided every set of accounts, every projection, every bit of paper the bank manager had asked for, but the answer had still been no. As a small business, with few assets except their skills, they didn’t have enough to offer in the way of security. They ran on a shoestring, but it was a successful shoestring. Until Jason.
He’d chosen his moment well. The weekend of their biggest, most prestigious event yet. She’d had no time to do more than wonder, in passing, why so many clients had chosen to settle their accounts in cash on that Friday, but she hadn’t dwelt on it. She’d found out afterwards, of course. Jason had asked them to, offering substantial discounts as an incentive. Those missing payments, and the regular sums he’d managed to skim out of the current account, had left them with almost nothing. She’d taken justified pride in her business savvy and organisational skills, but she’d still been taken for a fool. The fee from that big event was keeping them going, day-to-day. And every week more enquiries were coming in, from recommendations and word of mouth. In a few months … but she might not have a few months. Frustration simmered in her veins. She’d been so close to all her dreams, only to see them melting away. Because of a con artist.
But now …
She nodded at the cheque. ‘If we have to, that cash is rent and wages and the whole damn thing.’ She dropped her voice persuasively. ‘Come on, Bennie. Let’s go for it.’
She saw her friend hesitate. She knew what she was thinking. They’d both put too much into the agency to let it go without a fight. Benita took a very deep breath. ‘All right.’ She nodded. ‘I must be mad.’
‘Not so that you’d notice, and you’re in good company.’ Cassie rubbed her hands. ‘To work. Got to get me a temporary husband. Ring Simon and—’ She broke off when Benita shook her head.
‘Simon is backpacking in Peru.’
‘He left yesterday.’
‘Oh well – Michael then.’
‘Still in traction.’
‘Last I heard he was helping the police with their enquiries.’
‘I don’t believe this! What are we going to do?’
There was a long, anguished pause.
At last Benita spoke, ‘There’s only one thing we can do.’ She stirred the pencils in a pot on her desk, without looking up. Cassie watched her expectantly. ‘You have to call in Kings,’ Benita announced in a rush.
‘Kings?’ Cassie frowned. ‘Wenceslas? Elvis? Kong?’
‘Ahhhhh!’ Cassie sounded as if someone was pulling her toenails out with pincers. ‘No way! I would rather give you my best cashmere sweater than associate with that man.’
‘You only have the one cashmere sweater – and you shouldn’t make threats you have no intention of keeping,’ Benita warned. ‘What have you got against Jake?’
‘You have to ask?’ Cassie glowered, her mouth a stubborn line.
‘That was a long time ago. Get over it.’
‘I have. But that does not mean I want to be in the same room with him. Or even the same city,’ she added, muttering under her breath.
‘You know Jake is back in town. You’re bound to run into him eventually.’
‘Not necessarily. But I’ll deal with that when I have to.’ Cassie shrugged when she saw Benita’s disapproving expression. ‘Look, I realise the guy is your husband’s best friend from way back, but he and I — well, let’s just say we don’t get along any more, and leave it at that.’ She ran her eyes around the room, seeking inspiration. ‘There must be someone else. I know, ring the theatre and ask if they’ve got any actors going spare. There must be an understudy hanging about who’d be glad of the chance to earn a few extra quid.’
Benita was shaking her head again. ‘Haven’t you seen the posters? It’s a one-woman show this week.’
‘Oh.’ Cassie hunched her shoulders. ‘The temp agency?’
‘This I have to hear.’ Benita pushed the phone towards her.
‘You – explaining to Miss Potts why you want this guy.’
Cassie huffed in exasperation. Benita saw her chance and took it.
‘Look – if you are going ahead with this crazy stunt, then you need someone who can handle themselves, in case it gets nasty. We have no idea what this man Benson might really be up to. If you’re going to investigate a potential crime, you could use some professional backup. All the people from Kings are highly recommended.’ Benita pointed her finger to stop Cassie breaking in. ‘A detective agency gets asked to do all sorts of things. They are not going to think this is weird. Well, not too weird.’
Cassie’s head went back, but Benita didn’t waver. She just kept on with the stare.
‘I suppose it would be one of the men from the agency, wouldn’t it?’ Cassie said, at last. ‘Jake might not even get to know about it?’
‘No reason he should. He’s not there all the time.’
‘I don’t know why he’s there at all,’ Cassie said irritably. ‘The guy is loaded. He has a huge business empire to run. He should be out there, captaining industry, laying waste the stock market, taking over companies and stripping their assets – when he’s not dating supermodels and playing polo – or whatever else it is billionaires do.’ She was warming to her theme. ‘He should not be messing about with a detective agency!’
‘It’s his mother’s agency. An old family business. She’s been seriously ill and he’s helping out. You know all that. Give the guy a break.’
‘Excuse me? Jake McQuire is the last person to need any breaks. Didn’t he inherit half the world a few years ago? From his father?’
There was a pause. Both women eyed one another.
‘Oh, all right,’ Cassie capitulated. ‘Phone them and hire someone.’ She brightened. ‘Maybe they’ll send that cute blond guy who works out at the leisure centre.’
Benita grinned. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
Cassie stretched and stood up. ‘I’ll be in my office, if anyone wants me.’
If you enjoyed this extract and can’t wait to read more, you can find Summer in San Remo available to purchase on all eBook platforms!
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