Midnight Special Coming on Strong
Author:Tawny Weber

2



ALL MARNI COULD HEAR from the exam room were murmurs. Words like expert witness, new information and vital testimony. There had been mention of studying the case, of classified documents and secrets to protect.

It was all so juicy.

And she had the inside scoop.

The Midnight Special.

Her fingers flying across the screen of her phone, Marni called in her excellent research skills to find as much about the train as she could while hurrying back to the nurses’ station.

Owned by an eccentric movie director, the fully restored passenger car was a dedication to opulence and luxury. Crossing the country only six times a year, each tour was dedicated to a particular theme. She squinted at the screen and winced. This one was film noir. Ah, well, at least the fashions had rocked in the forties.

She wasn’t sure what excuse she’d babbled at Sammi as she raced out of the hospital. She vaguely remembered muttering something about a story, vintage clothes and sexy shoulders.

She flew across the hospital parking lot as fast as her high heels could carry her, diving into the driver’s seat of her Mini Cooper and giving a little scream of triumph.

This was it. Her big break.

She was going to follow him.

Marni glanced at the dashboard clock. Eight o’clock, a half hour to the train station and she didn’t have a ticket. Thinking fast, she pressed the phone button on her steering wheel, then chose her roommate’s number.

“I need a favor,” she said over the top of Carrie’s cheerful hello. “I’ll be swinging by in about ten minutes. Can you meet me out front with a suitcase?”

The stunned silence on the other end made Marni wince.

“You want me to pack for you?” Carrie asked, sounding equal parts thrilled and terrified. As if she’d just been asked to play opposite Johnny Depp in a love scene.

Film noir meant forties crime melodrama. She’d read that the entire trip was one of those mystery events where everyone dressed up.

“Think vintage fashion, the forties era,” Marni instructed her cousin. “Cocktail dresses, pencil skirts, my floral cotton dress and maybe the wool suit if you can find a wide belt. Oh, can I borrow your fedora? And don’t forget to pack my black leather T-strap pumps. They’re perfect.”

“You want me to pack anything vintage, in less than ten minutes?”

“You can’t do it?”

“Are you kidding? This is awesome. What’s the deal? Where are you going? With who and for how long?”

Marni cringed, then tried to pretend that the sound of drawers and doors flinging open was reassuring.

“Put together enough for a week—no, make it two weeks, just in case there isn’t laundry on the train. I’m catching the Midnight Special tonight to San Francisco and I’ll miss it if I don’t hurry.”

“Ooh?” From the beginning of the syllable to the end, Carrie went from excited to curious to suspicious. The banging and slamming stopped. “Why? What are you doing?”

“I’m chasing a guy.” Hoping that didn’t sound as silly to Carrie as it did to her, Marni bit her lip.

“A man...?” The last word was offered in a juicy whisper, with just a hint of as if thrown in. The skepticism didn’t just come from the fact that Carrie and Marni had been favorite cousins since they were babies, or that she’d heard Marni vow over and over that she wanted to be just like their aunt. It was that Carrie, like everyone else in the family, figured that Marni was just biding her time with this career until the right man came along. Oh, she could keep her job. The family considered themselves evolved enough to believe women could and should have careers outside the home. As long as the home in question included a husband and at least one darling tot. Which meant the careers had to lend themselves to taking good care of said husband and requisite tot.

Carrie had listened often enough to Marni railing against that family creed, sympathizing with her vow to someday, somehow, find the perfect guy. A sexy stud who’d be available when she wanted him, able to cater to all her sexual needs and happily slide back into obscurity when she was busy with her career.

“You found a boy toy like you’re always talking about?” Carrie asked in hushed awe. “A hot, gorgeous guy who will provide your every sexual desire, know where the G-spot is and why foreplay is vital, then quietly leave you alone in the morning?”

“I wish,” Marni muttered.

That was her ideal man. There to scratch that G-spot itch, dispose of ugly spiders, to be able to laugh at himself and, oh, if only, know his way around a dance floor. So, pretty much nonexistent.

But that wasn’t going to get her cousin packing any faster.

“Well, maybe,” she corrected more loudly. “I mean, I don’t know how good he is in bed or anything. But he’s got shoulders to die for, a body that won’t quit and oh, baby, his butt is so nice.”

Stopped at a red light, she squirmed a little in the seat of her car at the memory of the FBI guy’s back. A guy like that, sexy and strong, dedicated and focused? That kind of guy was dangerous. Not because he carried a gun. But because he was the only kind of guy she could ever imagine herself giving up her dream for.

Lucky for her, she was sure he didn’t have the rest of her fantasy guy requirements.

Great shoulders or not, no guy was that perfect.

Which made it easy to tell Carrie, “I’m going to chase him down and see, though. I mean, why not, right? I’m supposed to be on the great manhunt, putting every effort into pulling myself out of this shameful single life.”

“You saw a guy for the first time, what? Tonight? And suddenly you’re so hot for him, you’re hopping a train to chase him across the country?”

Marni scrunched her nose, wondering if that sarcasm was going to ooze some ugly substance out through the car’s Bluetooth speakers.

“Didn’t you chase Robert to Virginia?” she countered.

Carrie had followed her army paratrooper all the way to the altar. When he’d been deployed to the Middle East a couple of months after their wedding, she’d chosen to move back to New York to be close to family, with plans for Robert to put in for a transfer to Fort Hamilton when his tour was finished.

“You’re thinking marriage?”

Marni cringed.

“I never said that.”

“You compared chasing this guy to my chasing Robert. That means marriage.”

Maybe that’d been the wrong argument. Too late to change it now, though.

“Look, I’ve got to call the train station and make sure I can get a berth. Will you have my bag ready when I get there?”

“I’ll be on the front stoop in five minutes,” Carrie promised.

With a quick thanks, Marni gratefully ended the call.

Her gratitude, and good humor, were gone when she pulled up in front of the apartment building twelve minutes later.

“I’m late,” she said through the open window. “I’ve got to hurry.”

“I added a few extras from my closet, and borrowed some from Liza across the hall. She has better evening wear than either of us,” Carrie said before she hefted two suitcases and a satchel. “I wish you had a bigger car, though. I don’t think this is going to fit in your trunk.”

Before Marni could lift her chin off her chest, her cousin rounded the car, pulled open the passenger seat and started hefting bags into the back.

“How could you pack so much in such a short time?” And where was she supposed to put it? Didn’t trains have dinky berths?

“Hey, don’t let it be said that I didn’t do my part to help my cousin launch a major offensive on the Great Clare Marriage Quest.”

An offensive in defeating it, maybe. If she knew the truth, though, Carrie would likely grab the bags back out of the car, then throw herself across the hood to keep Marni from leaving. So she kept that to herself.

“Thanks,” she said instead. And knowing her cousin tended to worry, she added, “I’ll check in tomorrow.”

She only caught a glimpse of Carrie’s smile before the other woman wrapped her arms around Marni’s neck and whispered “good luck” in her hair. Then, with a glance at the clock on the dash, she scooted back out of the car, slammed the door and made an onward gesture by waving her arm forward.

Her stomach doing a crazy interpretive dance of nervous excitement, Marni grinned and waved.

This was it, time to make her dreams come true.

Thirty minutes later, she was ready to scream. Every second was tiptoeing closer to a nightmare than a dream.

“What do you mean, I can’t get a berth? I called. I was told there were three available.”

“Those are the overflow berths,” the porter said with an apologetic smile. He gestured, moving Marni off to the side and out of the way of the ticketed passengers boarding the train. “You shouldn’t have been offered one. The train is actually fully booked. I’m sorry for the mix-up.”

“Can’t I just get a seat instead, then?” Pretending she loved the idea of crossing the country sitting uncomfortably upright, Marni offered her sweetest smile. The one that flashed not only a dimple, but included a flutter of her lashes, as well.

The porter, a distinguished-looking gentleman in his forties, blushed. But he still shook his head and gave her a regretful look.

“I’m sorry. We’re not a commuter train. There is no sleeping in the public cars.”

“But—”

“Excuse me, Porter Jones, there’s a passenger situation that needs your attention.”

The porter and Marni both turned to the younger man, also dressed in the blue serge uniform and cap to indicate he was a part of the train crew.

“Of course. Porter Simpson, could you finish up with Ms. Clare for me please?”

“Sure,” the younger man said with an enthusiastic grin. After a sharp look from his superior, he brought it down a few watts, plastering on a serious look and nodding. “I’d be happy to help.”

After a warning look, Porter Jones excused himself.

“So what can I do for you?”

“According to Mr. Jones, there’s nothing that can be done.” Marni pushed a frustrated hand through her hair, then lifted it in a helpless gesture. “I called forty-five minutes ago, and thought I’d booked space on the train, but apparently I was wrong.”

“What? No way. I took that call. You asked me to reserve you a berth, so I logged it in.” He opened his vintage brass-and-leather folder to reveal a very modern computer tablet, using his finger to pull up a registration page.

“Marni Clare, right?”

At her nod, he tilted the screen toward her.

“See, here. I reserved the last berth for you. I just need your credit card to finish the booking.”

“Thank you so much.” Excited, Marni plucked her wallet from her clutch and slid out her credit card for him.

He ran her card through a little handheld device, then waited. He ran it again, then frowned.

“Okay, well I must have done something wrong.” His face crumpled a little and he looked down the platform as if searching for help. Not seeing anyone, he gave Marni a rueful grimace. “This is my first trip. I’ll figure it out, though. I mean, most of our training is in service, you know? Bookings are usually done by the senior porters.”

Not sure if she should be worried or not, Marni took her credit card back. “Is this going to be a problem?”

“Nah. I mean, I put your name on the berth registration, see?” He held up the tablet and pointed. Marni noticed the small icon at the bottom of the screen labeled Apply was still lit. As if it hadn’t been pushed, or the registration information hadn’t been sent through. “And it has your credit card number right here so it recorded your payment information. So it’s all good.”

“But—”

Before she could ask him about the apply icon, the train’s whistle blew loud and strong.

“All aboard,” he said with a grin. Closing the tablet back in its case, he lifted her suitcases and angled his head toward the steps. “Right this way, ma’am.”

But...

Her hand on the handle of her satchel, Marni hesitated. She was pretty sure he hadn’t actually completed the reservation. Which meant that she might not have a berth when she got on the train.

Of course, it wasn’t as though they were going to toss her out the window once they were in transit. Worst-case scenario, she spent the night in a lounge or dining car sitting up, and they’d put her off in Chicago the next day. Plenty of time for her to work the train, schmooze her way through the passenger list and see what she could find.

Even if she did get the berth, this was a gamble.

Less than twenty-four hours to find a guy who, given his injuries, would definitely be sleeping for the next eight or ten of them. She didn’t know his name, his voice was a husky blur. All she had to go on was a set of gorgeous shoulders and a very nice butt. The chances of getting all of the male passengers with dark hair to strip off their shirts and turn their backs was probably on the slim side.

Still, it was a chance.

“Coming,” she said with a big smile. She swung her satchel over her shoulder, tucked her purse tighter under her arm and hurried after him. Excitement swirled as she looked around, taking in all of the details. The train was a crisp red, the windows glistening like crystal against the harsh neon lights of the station. Holding the brass rail, she climbed the steps after the porter, then gave a soft gasp.

“Oh, my,” she breathed. It was like stepping into the past. Lantern-style lights lined the damask-covered walls of the narrow aisle. Instead of utilitarian grays, metal and plastic, everything she could see was pure luxury. Rosewood gleamed. Brass shone. Each berth door was heavy, polished wood with a discreet brass number.

It wasn’t going to be easy to find her FBI guy in this setup, she realized. When they reached the door marked seventeen, the porter stopped and, using a key from the huge ring at his waist, he opened the door.

He set her bags at the foot of the comfortable-looking full-size bed before pulling a second set of keys out of his pocket and choosing one.

Holding the two up to the light, he compared the key to the one on his ring, gave a satisfied nod, then handed it to her. He settled her suitcases into a cubby at the foot of the bunk-style bed, twisted the blinds to let in the bright station lights, then stepped over and turned on the light in the tiny bathroom.

“Breakfast is served in the dining car from six to eleven. The schedule of movie events is here,” he indicated, pointing to a brochure on the little dresser. “Tomorrow I’ll deliver your information packet. It will describe the rules and suggest strategies, as well as detailing your role for the Mystery Murder event.”

“Thank you so much,” Marni said, tucking a tip into his gloved hand. “I appreciate this, a lot.”

His boyish grin flashed again before he wiped it clean and gave her a sedate nod.

“If you require anything, just call the porter’s desk. It’s star four on the intercom.”

With that and one last look around as if completing a mental checklist of his duties, he gave her a nod and left.

“Well, then,” Marni muttered to herself as she peered around the sleeper car. It was bigger than she’d expect on a train, and just as luxurious as everything else she’d seen so far. Way more luxurious than her credit card would probably like, she realized.

Were all the berths this fancy? Was there anything cheaper? Holy cow. She dropped into one of the plush club chairs and took a deep breath. The magazine was generous with her expense account. Mingling with the rich and famous of the fashion world didn’t come cheap, after all. But they weren’t going to reimburse her for this since she wasn’t on a legitimate assignment.

Unless she broke the story.

Ambition stirred, intense and edgy in her belly. Big breaks were few and far between. This one had fallen into her lap. This was meant to happen.

The story was hers.

Excited again, Marni jumped to her feet and pulled one of the suitcases out, setting it on the crisply made berth, and flipped it open.

“Oh, Carrie.” She sighed.

No wonder she’d looked so smug. She hadn’t packed for Marni to travel across the country to the theme of film noir. She’d packed for Marni to manhunt her way into hot-and-sexy’s bed.

All of Marni’s best lingerie, silkiest underthings and most provocative clothes were tucked in here. Fitting in was one thing. Looking as if she was on the forties stroll was another.

Suddenly exhausted as the chasing-a-hot-story adrenaline drained from her body, she decided to worry about it in the morning. Right now, she just wanted sleep. With that in mind, she showered in the itsy-bitsy excuse of a bathroom, then slid into an even ittier and bittier excuse of a nightie. Her face freshly scrubbed, her hair tidily brushed, she slid the suitcase under the berth and pulled her own tablet out of her purse. Read, or sleep? Realizing she wouldn’t manage to read two pages, she set the tablet aside and turned off the lights.

She cued up her tiny MP3 player to her favorite subliminal recording, “Ambition Made Real” set to relaxing music. Tucking her earbuds in, she scooted down under six-hundred-thread-count sheets and moaned in delight.

A good night’s sleep filled with subconscious messaging and she’d be in prime investigative reporting mode first thing in the morning. Time to make her dreams come true.

* * *

WHAT A FREAKING NIGHTMARE.

As he got on the train, just before the departure whistle blew, Hunter cursed. Every cell in his body throbbed in painful unison, from his hair follicles to his toenails.

Hunter cursed as he made his way painfully through the train’s corridor, looking for the dining car. He needed food. Food, a shot of whiskey and about thirty hours of shut-eye.

He’d settle for the food, though.

“Are you still serving meals?” he asked the tuxedo-clad host who met him at the door of the dining car. “Can I get a burger?”

“Of course, sir. Right this way.”

It was a sad state of affairs that Hunter wanted to ask for a table near the door just so he didn’t have to cross the room. Instead, he gritted his teeth and followed the guy. Always alert, he scoped out the other diners. A dozen people in the high-income range from the bling and quality of their clothes. Couples, except one lone woman who was looking at him as if he might be more tasty than the piece of prime rib on her plate.

Now that he had a gauge on the room, Hunter ignored them all. Including the hungry-looking brunette.

“Burger,” he repeated as he dropped into a chair, his back to the wall and the room in full view. “Medium, along with whatever you put on the side. Add a bowl of that beef soup, rolls and a Cobb salad. In whatever order they cook fastest.”

Rolling a car tended to make him hungry.

“And to drink?”

He debated.

Technically, he was off duty. He was also under doctor’s orders to take the next twenty-four hours off and recuperate. He couldn’t work the case until they reached Chicago and he got the files.

“Whiskey, neat.”

While he waited, he’d go through his own notes and list a few priorities. He barely had time to pull out his notebook before his drink arrived, quickly followed by the rolls and his soup. Hunter dove into the meal with gusto, jotting down notes between bites.

Saving Beverly Burns had been a godsend. For the FBI as much as her, probably. A trophy wife with a brain, she’d made the fatal mistake of telling her husband off for having an affair. Charles Burns, figuring divorce proceedings might be headed his way, had thumped her over the head and tossed her into one of his warehouses, then set the damned thing on fire.

Hunter read over his outline of events, jotting down notes here and there as he ate. By the time he wiped the last crumb from his lips, he was comfortable with his plans for the case, full and totally exhausted.

“Can I get the bill?” he asked the waiter who was clearing his plate.

“No charge, sir. Meals are included in the cost of your trip. I just need to note down your berth number.”

He hadn’t seen the berth yet, hadn’t even checked to see where it was. Hunter pulled out the train ticket from his pocket to check, impressed despite himself. He hadn’t figured Murray for the type to book a luxury trip. The guy doubtless had no choice, though. The cattle cars were probably all full.

“I’m in seventeen.”

“Very good.” The man made a note before asking if Hunter wanted anything else.

“Just some sleep.”

It wasn’t until he stood up that Hunter realized his aches were gone. He blinked a couple times to bring the room back into focus and wondered what the hell kind of whiskey they served here.

Then he winced. Hell, the doc had poked him with a needle or two, probably some kind of painkillers. Too bad he hadn’t remembered that before he’d thrown back a couple fingers of alcohol.

He wasn’t impaired. Just a little foggy.

No problem. He wasn’t driving, wasn’t working the case. His only objective for the rest of tonight was to get some damned sleep. He’d walk a little slower to compensate for the slight haze the room had taken on. Hunter never let anything stand in his way.

Sleeping berth seventeen was easy enough to find. Not bothering with lights, he stripped naked, tossing his clothes over the back of a chair. Thankfully, Murray had had someone deliver a change of clothes to the hospital, but it was all Hunter had until his luggage was delivered, along with the case files.

Soft fingers of moonbeams peeked through the window, lighting the bed curtain enough for him to find the opening. The bed was turned down, welcoming as he sank into its comfort.

His last thought before he dived into sleep was a mild feeling of regret. He’d really been looking forward to his naked romp with the redhead. So much that he could smell that rich, floral temptation that was pure feminine delight.

Not a bad thing to go to sleep with.