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Two Worlds, Two Men by Joy Frawley

Two Worlds, Two Men

by Joy Frawley

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 9781607358077

[ Time Travel Romance ]

Jocelyn and Neely are having a perfectly pleasant dinner at the Sheep Heid Inn when it happens: Jocelyn suddenly finds herself sitting across the table, not from Neely, but a strange man dressed in medieval garb. This man is no apparition. His eyes, the deepest brown, clearly look on her in intimacy; his touch causes her pulse to rise. Jocelyn realizes two things: from his clothes, he is clearly an aristocrat, and that she, Jocelyn Stewart, seems to be in some sort of romantic relationship with him! Minutes later Jocelyn returns to Neely, in the present day, weak and terrified.

Together they begin to unravel the forgotten past and find themselves facing the reality of medieval Scotland: A strange world steeped in folklore and superstition; where life begins and often ends with the sword. As Jocelyn travels back to medieval times she learns that the man she keeps seeing is no other than Sir Colin Campbell of the powerful Campbell Clan. When Jocelyn is with Colin, she wants never to leave his side; then she returns to the present and cannot imagine herself with anyone but Neely. Jocelyn struggles with a choice. Which man will gain her heart when both offer such different love? She is in love with two different men in two different worlds.

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Excerpt

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Loose Ends by Lucy Felthouse

Loose Ends

by Lucy Felthouse

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 9781607356226

When Jonathan and Lauren met at University, it should have been the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Years later, Jonathan shows up unexpectedly throwing Lauren into turmoil. The pair start talking, and all the old feelings come back. But will this time be different?

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Chapter One

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Lie To Me
by JL Wilson

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-60735-239-6

Grace Jamison went out on a blind date and ended up on a vacation that took her through the Badlands, across two states, and into the arms of the man of her dreams … now if she can only convince him to stay there!

Chapter One

“Why do I let myself get talked into stuff like this?” Grace Jamison asked the pigeon pecking the dark brown paving stone at her feet.
The bird cocked its head and regarded her with a bright black eye. No idea, it seemed to say. But you always do.
She crossed one pale blue denim-clad leg over the other and leaned back, her curly dark blond hair flowing over her shoulders, so long it almost touched the base of the statue on which she sat. The May sunlight warmed her face despite the cool breeze washing over the Art Park outside the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Spring had been cold that year, and it felt more like Easter was approaching than Memorial Day. Despite the cool weather, she heard music coming from the park a block away. She tilted her head, recognizing the raspy voice of Jonny Lang as he sang the blues. The park was a favorite gathering place for students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University; a little cool weather wouldn’t keep their spirits down.
Grace glanced at her watch. She promised Margaret that she would meet this guy, so meet him she would. After all, Margaret was more like an older sister than a cousin, and her husband, Nathan Stokes, vouched for the guy. Margaret was anxious for Grace to find the Right Man just as she had found Nathan. Grace didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had already found the right man. He just didn’t know it.
“I’m leaving town tonight so it’s no big deal,” Grace murmured. “One cup of coffee and I can give him the old, ‘sorry, I’ve got to pack’ excuse.” In a few hours she would board a train to begin what she hoped would be a life-changing adventure. “By this time next week, I’ll see Kerry again,” she whispered. “I’ll see him and I’ll finally know what he feels for me.”
The bird pecked the pavement at her feet, oblivious to Grace’s discussion of her upcoming blind ‘date’ versus the Man of her Dreams, Kerry Songhorse. The bird and its companions were the only other warm-blooded creatures in the plaza. Several statues were spaced throughout the half-block square, as well as trees and shrubs, but the human patrons were all inside the glass-walled cafeteria that overlooked it.
Grace straightened and tugged her denim jacket tighter over her dark brown turtleneck sweater, going over Nathan’s description of Ben Cochran in her mind. “He’s a little bit nerdy, but give him a chance,” Nathan had told her. “He’s tall, too, which is good, right?”
Yes, tall is good, Grace thought. She was 5’10”, so the taller, the better. It wasn’t a requirement, but it certainly made life easier.
“He’s got black hair, and he wears glasses—just sometimes, not all the time. And he’s tall. Oh, I said that. And he’s into computers.” Nathan had laughed nervously. “He’ll probably go on and on about a project he’s working on. He’s a game player, too. You know, those role-playing things? He’s at Level Orange or something in one of those, and… Ben is kind of intense sometimes. But he’s a great guy. Really great. You’ll like him, Grace.”
Grace sighed. Just a cup of coffee. That’s all. One cup of coffee. I like Nathan. It’s the least I can do after all he and Margaret did to help me. Her wrist ached, reminding her of the cold weather and of the events a few months ago. She stared at the narrow segment of parking lot viewable in the distance. Because of the enclosing walls of the museum and cafeteria, the Art Park blocked her view of most of the lot, although she could see Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park beyond the cars parked in the distance. Sunlight glistened on cars driving through the rolling terrain of the four hundred acres, making the distant trees and golf course glimmer in the late afternoon sun.
A man was walking toward her, striding up the path from the parking lot with a long, purposeful gait. Was that him? He was tall, all right, although it was hard to tell just how tall at this distance. His black hair was long and curling up on his collar. Broad-shouldered, long-legged, attractive in an athletic, muscular sort of way. Sunglasses. Grace tugged a strand of hair that caught on the metalwork behind her and pushed the curly mass over her shoulder. If that was Ben Cochran, she might want more than a cup of coffee.
As he neared, he slid the sunglasses off, slipping them into the pocket of his dark gray sports coat. His gray T-shirt was tucked into black denims, emphasizing his big shoulders and narrow waist. That Nathan, Grace thought as she stood and smiled. He must have been kidding. Geeky? This guy? Good Lord, he’s almost as handsome as Kerry. The thought made her blink with surprise. They even look a bit alike with that black hair and the chiseled, sharp features. But Kerry’s eyes are dark and this guy’s eyes…they’re so pale. I’ve never seen eyes like that. They’re the color of ice.
Grace’s attention jerked away from comparisons to the man walking toward her, staring at her intently. Men often stared at Grace. It was the consequence of having a model-perfect body, waist-length honey blonde hair and a freckled, “girl-next-door” complexion. She’d been stared at since her body matured in puberty. But this wasn’t that kind of look. This was predatory, intimidating. He wasn’t examining her body or her hair. His eyes… She took a step back, surprised to find the man with the unwavering pale gray eyes standing right in front of her.
“Ben?” She held out her hand.
The man looked at it, looked at her. He was as handsome up close as he was from a distance, with an oval face, pointed chin, and straight, almost narrow nose. Thick black hair curled around his collar, strands blowing in the breeze. His eyes were his most distinctive feature, like chips of metal rimmed in black, giving him a blind, icy look. She stared up at him and smiled tentatively. “Ben?”
“Were you expecting someone else?” He jerked her into his arms. He was far taller than she originally thought. He had to be at least 6’6”. Those icy blue-gray eyes were like cold lasers as he stared down at her. “You know why I’m here, right?”
“We’re supposed to—”
“Shh.” His eyes held her captive. “You look like a princess, sitting here waiting for your prince.” He smiled slowly, the edges of his mouth curving up. Dimples deepened in his cheeks and long creases appeared at the edges of his eyes, small flecks of white in the smooth tan of his skin. “Princess.”
A game player. “Is this a game?” she whispered.
His eyes changed, darkening like the clouds drifting on the horizon. “Of course it is. I’ve heard you’re an exceptional player, too.” He tilted his head to one side and regarded her, his eyes flickering over her face. “You’re going away soon, right? Do you plan to have a little fun while you’re gone?” His sly smile told her exactly what kind of ‘fun’ he had in mind.
Grace glared at him coldly. “That’s none of your business.” Had Nathan told this guy about her plans to visit Kerry?
If Nathan talked about that, I’ll skin him alive!
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did I make you mad?” He picked out a strand of her thick honey-colored hair and fingered it. “No one told me how beautiful you were.”
“Didn’t Nathan tell you what I looked like?” She wiggled in his arms, and he loosened his hold but didn’t release her completely.
“Nathan?”
“Nathan Stokes.” Grace moved away from him, suddenly nervous. It was one thing to have a guy act like a goof, but this was weird. She managed to put a few more inches between them, but he was still uncomfortably close. Grace leaned to her right but a statue was at her back, preventing any movement in that direction.
“Stokes. Sure.” He looked distracted, his eyes narrowing and momentarily far away. “I forgot about Stokes.”
“How could you forget about Nathan? He’s why I’m here.” Grace pushed at his arms, and he released her, but he didn’t step back. On the contrary, he moved as close as he was before. “I’d rather not play this game,” she said and immediately regretted the words when she heard how whiney she sounded.
“You don’t want to play the game.” He spoke flatly, his face just inches from hers.
Grace flinched back. “No. I mean, I’d rather not…it’s not what Nathan said…I mean, can’t we just—?”
“You promised me a kiss, didn’t you?”
“What?” She stared up at him, so surprised, she couldn’t move.
“I was told you’d give me at least a kiss.” He smiled, but it was just his lips that moved. His eyes didn’t warm.
“Who told you that?” Grace pulled back but a knobby bit of statue dug into her back. She tried to ignore it, anxious to escape this stranger’s angry glare. “Did Nathan—?”
He jerked her into his arms, and his lips came down on hers.
Grace was so shocked she hung in his arms for a second before struggling. His lips were fixed on hers, his tongue delving into her mouth, his body pushed hard against hers. Between his tight arms and his probing kiss, she could barely breathe. She wasn’t an experienced kisser—far from it—but even in the midst of her chaotic thoughts, Grace realized he was very, very, good. His mouth, hands, and body all worked together, making her feel like the center of his universe, as though she was all he had thought of. If she hadn’t been so frightened, she would have been aroused. You are aroused, a little voice in her head whispered. Don’t lie.
The thought was like a shock of cold water. Grace tried in vain to pull away, but he put one hand on her head, keeping her face pressed against his. His other arm was around her waist, pulling her tight against him. She felt his erection, hard and insistent, a rod of flesh pressed against her stomach as he stepped forward, forcing her back against the concrete of the statue base behind her.
“No…no…” she mumbled, twisting her head. His hand tangled in her hair and tears sprang into her eyes when he jerked her head back. “What are you doing?” she gasped as his lips finally released hers.
He stared into her eyes. His were like gray chips of stone, cold and hard. “You know what I’m doing. I’m doing what you suggested. I’m combining business with pleasure.”
“What?” Grace put her right hand against his left shoulder and pushed. It was like pushing one of the statues behind her. He remained pressed against her. She realized how it must look—two lovers, meeting in the Art Park, his arms entwined around her, her arms pinned to his chest as she stared up into his face. “What do you want?”
“You’re very good. Beautiful and good. I’d love to stay and entertain myself, but this project has to get done and soon.”
Project? Grace gulped, trying to make some sense out of the words he whispered in a harsh, husky voice. Nathan said he was intense but… This can’t be the guy. Nathan would never set me up with a… “Who are you?” she asked.
His arms slipped down to her waist, pulling her against him. She tried to look down as she felt something touching her side.
“Don’t look,” he snapped.
Her head snapped up, almost hitting him. He reared back, his mouth tight and hard. “Good try but it didn’t work, bitch.”
Fear, anger, and incredulity all surged within Grace. Fear won out. She opened her mouth to scream, but he must have sensed what she was going to do because he forced her face close to his. “It’s in your pocket. Thank you. They were watching.” His eyes were blue—no, gray—no, they were blue. They were so changeable. They snared her, trapped her. “I put it together just for you. It has all the information you need to make up your mind. Call me when you decide.” He looked beyond her, over her shoulder to the cafeteria and the patrons sitting there.
Grace twisted, following his gaze. Four or five tables were near the glass wall overlooking the plaza. Most of the people at those tables were talking to each other. Two men at the center table, though, stared out the window at them. They were too far away for her to see their faces clearly, but their interest was evident.
She gaped at him. “What?”
“You saved my life.” He kissed her again. But this time it was gentle and sweet. And once again Grace was so surprised she just stood there, her brain whirling. “Thank you.” He pushed a thick strand of hair over her shoulder, his hand touching her cheek with a soft caress. “What’s your name?”
She gaped at him. “Grace. You know my name. Didn’t Nathan tell you?”
“How appropriate. Amazing Grace.” He smiled at her but there was sadness in his eyes. “Your looks won’t help you, Grace. Pity. I wish I could see you again, I really do, but I’m not sure it will be possible. But…” He kissed her, his lips a lingering brush against hers. “I hope you’ll contact me.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” she said when he released her and took a step back. As she did she heard shouts coming from her right, where the parking lot was hidden from her view by a grove of trees. She turned, trying to see what the noise was all about, and when she turned back, the man was walking away from her, his head down as he focused on the uneven pavers.
A sudden chill washed over her, and she stared again at the cafeteria. The two men who had been looking at them were gone, hurrying through the tables to the side exit near where the man disappeared. Sirens erupted, close enough that she winced when the noise vibrated around the semi-enclosed space. Something big was happening. People ran through the parking lot, heading for a spot to her right. Grace walked toward the parking lot, peering from side to side as she emerged from the Art Park.
A crowd of people milled around a side door on the far end of the north side of the plaza. Two policemen in uniform held out their arms, keeping people from moving forward and two men were on the opposite side of the circle, keeping the people there from moving. Two other officers were near the door. One of them spotted Grace as she emerged from the plaza. “Ma’am, can you wait right there, please?”
Grace stopped. “Me? Why?”
“You might be a witness. Please wait there.”
Dozens of people turned to stare at her. “Witness to what?” Grace asked a man as he hurried by.
“Murder. They found a woman’s body near the door.” He gestured toward the far side of the plaza as he pulled a phone out of his pocket. At that moment the crowd shifted, and Grace caught a glimpse of a body on the ground. Long blonde hair covered the woman’s face where she lay sprawled in a pool of dark blood.
Secret Agent Man chimed from the phone tucked into Grace’s jacket. She fumbled in the deep denim pocket, her fingers first encountering a small hard object. It caught on her wristwatch as she pulled out her Blackberry, her hand trembling when she opened the phone’s leather holder. “Nathan?”
“I’m sorry, Grace. I heard from Ben, and he can’t get there. He didn’t have your phone number so he couldn’t call you himself.”
“Huh?” She stared down at the object swaying from her wrist.
“Ma’am, we need to talk with you. Can you hang up the phone?”
Grace untangled a necklace from her wristwatch and stared at a small black bear studded with rhinestones and pearls, dangling from a silver chain.
“What’s happening, Grace?” Nathan asked.
Grace looked at the police officer in front of her. “I have no idea,” she said faintly.
* * * *
Ben Braden looked behind him, thankful for the distraction that kept the watchers off his tail. People were streaming past him, going to whatever was causing the fuss, and he silently thanked curious onlookers for providing him with some cover.
What had started as a lousy day was ending well. He’d been on this project for almost a year, and it was finally showing results. Everything hinged on the next few days. As soon as they wrapped it up, he could get on with the next phase of his life.
Whatever that might be.
Ben looked back over his left shoulder but the woman—G. Martin—was lost to sight. She wasn’t what he expected. Her voice made her sound a lot more coarse, a lot more experienced. She had called when he was near the outdoor fountain at Phipps Conservatory, at the edge of the park. All he’d wanted to do was get this handoff over with so he could go home and sleep. He’d been on the move for five days, and it was catching up to him.
“I’ll be waiting for you at the Art Plaza.” The voice paused then asked suspiciously, “You’ve got it, right?”
“Yeah.”
“You sound like you’re in a bad mood,” the voice said teasingly. “Maybe I’ll have to cheer you up.”
“Just stick to the plan,” Ben snapped.
“Hey, I heard you like the ladies,” the voice said smoothly. “I don’t know if you can handle one who’s had my training, though.”
He ground his teeth. How long before the stories about Paris died out? “We’ll see. What do you look like?”
“I’m tall, I’m blonde, and I’m waiting near the Art Plaza. I’ve heard I’m your type. I’ll be waiting for you, sweetie,” the voice said seductively. “No reason we can’t combine some business with pleasure. You’re used to that, right?” She laughed and hung up before he could snarl a reply.
Ben grimaced as he remembered that conversation now. All he had to do was meet that bitch, give her the memory stick disguised as a necklace and get out. She would take the damning data back to her handlers, and they could finally find the traitors they were looking for.
He didn’t count on her being so young, though. Ben paused. He was starting to notice how young a lot of the agents were. Of course, he was fifty-five and retirement loomed large in his future. No matter what anyone said about his ‘contribution to the Bureau’, he would always hit a glass ceiling when it came to promotions and assignments. The Paris Thing would haunt him forever. There would always be talk. He knew that when it happened, and he accepted it, but it still galled him.
Ben stopped on the corner of Forbes and Craig as a city bus pulled to a stop nearby, the exhaust fumes overlaying the scent of daffodils from the flower bed in front of the museum’s cafeteria. A sudden chill made him hunch his shoulders, and he bent to pick up a scrap of paper from the pavement, using the movement to glance behind him. He was still being followed. Damn. Those guys were good.
He straightened and considered his options. The bus door opened a few feet from him, and he got on, flashing his Metro pass at the driver. As he settled into a seat near the back, he had a good look at the bald-headed man who had followed him most of the afternoon. The guy was talking on his cell phone. Ben leaned back. In the 18 months he’d been living in Pittsburgh, he made it a point to learn a lot of the bus routes. There were several points along this route where he could get off, cross the street and hop another bus. He could come back and get his car later that night.
With a belly-aching growl, the bus lurched away from the corner and ambled along Forbes Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Oakland – Pittsburgh’s University district. Ben looked back and saw police cars streaming toward the museum, their sirens wailing. A gorgeous red Corvette darted past the bus, a white-haired man at the wheel with a luscious-looking blonde sitting in the passenger seat.
Not as luscious as G. Martin, he thought. Good Lord, it was all I could do to let go of her. Those legs! Ben shivered. Long legs were his weakness, and Martin’s were toned and long, fitting right in with the rest of that beautiful body. And her hair! Honey-brown hair with gold highlights, so thick and long a man could get lost in it. Her green eyes were like looking into a forest and her complexion – all freckles and pinkness – shouted All American Girl!
How did somebody like that get tangled up with the biggest traitors on the planet? The thought made his stomach twist. Why the hell did she have to be so beautiful? He glanced at his watch. It was five o’clock. He’d give it a few hours, hopping buses, then go back to the office. The project was closing down, and once Martin played her part, he could put it all behind him.
He was tempted to log on and find Martin’s home phone number in the Bureau database. As soon as he considered it, Ben rejected the idea. She was a suspect in an ongoing investigation and any contact with her had to be strictly monitored. It had taken this long to dig himself out of the hole he fell into when Michelle betrayed him in Paris. He wasn’t going to blow it all on Grace Martin, traitor.
Ben got off at the next stop, ducked into the parking garage across the street, and emerged on Bigelow Boulevard, where he immediately caught an express bus downtown. Instead of getting off at the Federal Building, he rode the bus through the city center and to the South Side, where he got off and hopped another bus that took him to a western suburb. Two more buses and two hours later, he was back downtown at the Federal Building.
He paused at security, handing his badge and gun to the guard on duty then passing through the scanners. His desk was in the bullpen on the nineteenth floor, and, as he waited for the elevator, he scanned the headlines in the newspaper kiosk. The elevator was almost to the ground floor lobby when his cell phone chimed.
Ben glanced at the display. Unknown. He recognized the number, though. “Yeah?”
“Mr. Braden.” The voice—precise, British, and clipped—sounded exasperated. “Why did you kill our agent? That was impulsive.”
Ben frowned. His contact, who he thought of as ‘Bond’ because of the accent and the fact the man was in the spy game, sounded honestly perplexed. “What are you talking about? I didn’t kill anyone.” He stood aside for a man to exit the elevator, and, as he did, the headline on the newspaper stand next to the door caught his eye. Ben fumbled for the correct change and got the newspaper just as the elevator doors opened. “What do you mean?” He skimmed the story as the elevator glided upward, his phone jammed between his shoulder and his ear.
“We saw you with a most lovely girl. Who is she?” Bond laughed. “She certainly was kissable.”
“What do you mean? She’s—” Ben stopped, ‘your agent’ almost escaping. “You saw me with…” What was her name? “Grace? Your agent is dead?”
“Hmm.” The voice hesitated. The elevator chimed on the nineteenth floor. The floor was quieter than usual. Ben glanced around, spotting Charlie Davidovitch at his desk near Ben‘s, staring at a computer screen. “I didn’t kill anyone,” Ben said, his brain in overdrive. “I was just mixing a bit of business with pleasure.” Believe the lie, he pleaded silently. Don’t blow this operation. You’ve got two years invested in it. Don’t blow it. “When I saw the crowd I figured the deal was off.”
“Pleasure? Really? So the pretty blonde lady is your girlfriend?”
Ben swallowed hard. “Of course.”
“Hmm. It’s true you have a predilection for women of that type, but we had nothing in our files about her. Is she new? It’s irrelevant. Our agent is dead, and you didn’t do it. Does that mean…?” Bond’s bantering tone was replaced by one that was cold and angry. “We’ll be in touch. I need that data, Mr. Braden. Soon.” The line went quiet.
Ben sank into the chair at his desk and logged on to his computer, bringing up the Bureau directory. He searched for Grace Martin as a cold feeling of panic spread into his chest. He rubbed it, wondering absently if he was having a heart attack.
There was no Grace Martin working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There was a Gail Martin working for the FBI in Pittsburgh. But no one named Grace in the Pittsburgh office. “Son of a bitch!” he said loudly and stood up so fast his chair fell over.
Charlie looked up in surprise, his lush black beard and shaggy hair giving him the appearance of a Cossack in a blue flannel shirt. “What’s up, B.B.?”
“A royal screw-up, that’s what’s up.” He looked at the newspaper headline: Woman Murdered at Museum Art Park. Ben called homicide and had his worst fears confirmed.
The victim was Gail Martin. The woman he was supposed to meet. And Grace whoever-it-was now carried data files that were supposed to be on their way to New York.
“Son of a bitch.” He picked up the phone and dialed the cell phone of Stan Brewster, his boss. As he listened to the phone ringing, he wondered again,
“Who the hell is Grace?”

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Shadow of Doubt
by JL Wilson

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-60735-104-7

FBI agent Nathan Stokes planned to propose to Margaret Dalton on Valentine’s Day in the Bahamas. But the best laid plans of mice and men and FBI agents often go awry. Nathan and Margaret end up in Possum Bottom, Minnesota, in the middle of a brutal cold spell. They also end up getting embroiled in a brutal inheritance fight that involves a casino, Native American land rights … and murder.

Chapter One

“Remind me again why we’re in Possum Bottom, Minnesota, and not in the Bahamas like we planned.” Nathan Stokes hunched his shoulders in his dark overcoat and peered at Margaret Dalton from the confines of his scarf as they walked into the wind. “It’s almost Valentine’s Day, Margaret. We were going to be in the Bahamas for Valentine’s Day.”
“I delegated,” she snapped.
Nathan jammed his hands deeper into his coat pockets. “You delegated?” He looked to his right, down the two-block shopping district and winced as the swirling wind blew snow into his face.
“I told you, Nathan. I’m the executor of Uncle Arlen Thibodeaux’s will. He died a month ago and the lawyer I hired apparently didn’t—or wouldn’t—deal with the estate.” Margaret settled her Coach purse more comfortably on her leather-coated shoulder. “I delegated the task and look where it got me.”
She looked at the piece of paper in her gloved hand and peered at the brass numbers on the brick storefronts. “Mother and Shannon say I need to delegate responsibility. They always say I’m too—” She glanced at Nathan, a flush pinkening her flawless porcelain complexion. “Well, you know.”
Nathan did know. He could almost hear Katherine and Shannon say it. Margaret’s mother and younger sister had occasionally pulled him aside to prod him about his relationship with the middle Dalton girl. Margaret’s such a control freak. How can you stand it? Isn’t she too bossy for you?
He smiled innocently at Margaret. “Too busy?” he suggested.
“Hmm.” Margaret smiled perfunctorily at a young woman in skin-tight jeans and a short jacket who walked by them. She smiled at Nathan then gave Margaret an assessing look before moving past. “This should be it. I believe the lawyer’s office is upstairs.”
Nathan eyed the Possum Bottom Bowling Alley and Lanes ‘O Fun warily. This trip was shaping up to be more interesting than he’d anticipated, although his plans had been pretty damn interesting to start with. They were supposed to be on a trip to the Bahamas where he had hoped to pop the Big Question while he and Margaret were lounging on the beach. His daydreams about his vacation hadn’t included a foray to western Minnesota through sub-zero temperatures in order to talk to a small town lawyer about a deceased uncle’s estate on an Indian reservation.
Through a cracked pane of glass, Nathan heard Garth Brooks shouting his love of friends in low places and felt a wistful kinship with the singer. The song mingled with the moist aroma of beer and cigarettes coming from an establishment that seldom experienced fresh air.
“His office is above the bowling alley?”
“There aren’t a lot of options in town,” Margaret pointed out.
Nathan looked across the street at the Just-A-Buck store, Al’s Pharmacy and Computer Exchange, Benjamin’s Baubles, and the PBBT—Possum Bottom Bank & Trust. The two story buildings all seemed to house a business below and either another business or an apartment above. He’d noted the same arrangement on their meander down Main Street as they passed Julie’s House of Dance, the Joltin’ Java Café, the Lac Qui Parle Disc-Go-Round, and Frank’s Furnaces & Furniture.
“What is Lac Qui Parle?”
“Not ‘Lacky Parl’. You sound like a native. It’s Lac Qui Parle,” Margaret enunciated, her French accent impeccable. “It’s the name of the county. And the lake, of course.” She smiled at his blank expression. “Loosely translated, it means ‘the lake that talks.’”
“Oh.” Nathan hunched his shoulders, frowning at his reflection in a window and the light dusting of snow he spied on his military-cut brown hair. It added to the gray at his temples. “Is Possum Bottom the biggest town around?”
“The biggest one in the county.” Margaret reached for a massive wooden door next to the fogged-over glass door leading to the bowling alley. “I believe there’s about two or three thousand inhabitants.”
“A metropolis.” Nathan intercepted her, pulling open the door and slipping inside.
He unbuttoned his coat and pushed it open, revealing his worn blue jeans and blue plaid flannel shirt covered by a loose blue sports jacket. He peered up the dark stairway to the landing above, where a light in a bulbous fixture dangled. Satisfied no one was above them, he turned his attention to the boxes inset into the wall.
Margaret edged into the small landing behind him and watched as he inspected the brass mailboxes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m an FBI agent, Margaret. I’m naturally curious. I thought I’d check and make sure we’re in the right place.” He tapped one of the four mailboxes. “Jon Kincaid, Attorney at Law. Looks like we got it in one.” Nathan winked at her, his smoky gray eyes glinting with mischief. “Let’s get this over with and get back to the Lamb Chop.”
“Lion and Lamb,” Margaret said patiently. “Our B&B is called the Lion and Lamb.”
“I prefer Lamb Chop.” He started up the worn wooden steps, his thick-soled boots adding a layer of gritty sand to the deposit already there.
Margaret followed, carefully pulling her beige cashmere scarf from her head and settling it around her shoulders. She tucked a strand of chestnut hair more securely into her demure French twist. Like Nathan, she wore jeans, but hers were crisp, ironed, and fit her slender body like a tailored glove. Her rust-colored turtleneck sweater exactly matched her hand-tooled leather boots that in turn matched her leather gloves, now tucked securely in her leather coat’s pockets.
Margaret looked pointedly at Nathan’s hand, hovering at his right side, near his belt on his worn blue jeans. “Are you carrying a gun?” She eyed the loose blue sports coat he wore over his flannel shirt. “You never wear a coat unless you have a gun.”
“I always wear a coat.”
“My point exactly. Are you wearing a gun? We’re on vacation.”
“Of course I’m carrying a gun.”
“It’s Possum Bottom, Minnesota. Why do you need a gun?”
“Angry marsupials, perhaps?” He paused on the step above her. “Why don’t you wait there and I’ll see if anybody’s home.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You’re seeing boogie men.”
“I’m paid to see boogie men, Margaret. Wait there.”
She sighed loudly but waited until Nathan ascended four steps. Then she stealthily crept up the stairs behind him, the noise from her Frye boots masked by his heavier tread and an occasional muffled shriek of warped wood from the steps.
“Margaret, just wait.” He didn’t even turn around as he said it.
“How did you know—?”
“I’m trained to know that kind of shit. Just wait.”
Margaret hesitated until he got to the landing and disappeared around a corner. Then she darted upward, puffing by the time she got to the top of the eleven steps. She collided with Nathan, bouncing back slightly from his solid bulk as she rounded the corner on the landing and entered a small foyer in front of three doorways. The heels of her boots made her exactly Nathan’s height and he smiled into her eyes as he put his arms around her.
“Hello, there. I was expecting you.”
“Quit being smug, Nathan.” Margaret tried to pull away but he held her firmly. She gave up and relaxed in his arms. “What are you smiling at?”
“You.” He kissed her, his lips gentle then insistent. “I think we should get back to the Pork Chop and get a fire going in that fireplace.”
She put her arms around him. “You do, hmm? A fire in the fireplace?”
He tugged her nearer so their bodies were as close as winter clothing would allow. “That’s not the only fire I’d like to get going.” His lips brushed her ear, his dark brown beard stubble rasping her cheek and making her shiver. “You know what they say—abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.”
She smiled dreamily at him, wiggling her hips. “That’s not the only thing it makes grow. How long has it been since I saw you?”
“One month, three weeks, and two days.” He brushed a kiss against her ear lobe. “That was the last time I saw all of you, I should say. It’s been one month, three weeks and one day since you went back to St. Louis. Not that I’m counting. I’m glad your plane wasn’t late. I’m anxious enough as it is.”
“It was fortunate your Chicago plane and my St. Louis plane were able to meet in Minneapolis,” she agreed, running her hands over the hard planes of his back. “Otherwise we might have had to do some extra driving.”
“Perish the thought. Did you bring your swimsuit like I asked?”
“Yes, but why? I bought it for the Bahamas, not Possum Bottom, Minnesota.”
“I have plans for that swimsuit.” He pulled away reluctantly. “Let’s get this legal crap over with, okay? I’m not getting any younger.”
Margaret grinned. “I’m eight years older than you. I should be saying that.”
“You’re wearing me out, you insatiable old lady you. Besides, when men get in their forties, they need to start conserving their strength.”
Margaret pulled him back to her. “Don’t conserve too much, okay?” She put a hand on the back of his head and drew his face closer. “Your hair is short. Did you just get it cut?”
“Yep. Problem?”
“Not at all.” She smiled. “I like tickly hair.”
“I’m thinking of shaving my head completely.” He frowned. “You know.”
She nodded. “And I’ve told you, it doesn’t matter to me if your hair is thinning or you’re going bald. I still think you’re sexy.”
He stared into her dark brown eyes. “You’re wearing that perfume again.”
“What perfume?”
“The stuff that makes me just a little bit crazy.”
“Damn. I was hoping it made you a lot crazy.” Margaret kissed him quickly then slipped out of his arms. “Is that the office?”
Nathan shook his head and staggered slightly. “You have such an effect on me, Margaret. All my blood leaves my head and pools in my—”
She shot him a reproving look.
“—toes,” he finished. “Yep, that’s the office.”
The oak door was inset with a frosted window. Jon Kincaid, Esq. was painted on the glass in a florid black script. Nathan tested the brass doorknob cautiously, pushing open the door and looking inside. He stepped into a small antechamber.
“Nobody here,” he commented, looking at the empty wooden desk facing the doorway, another door behind it.
Margaret followed him into the space. “Perhaps his secretary is taking a break.”
Nathan held up a plastic nameplate. “Megan Buchanan appears to be A.W.O.L.” He put the plastic rectangle near a tidy stack of papers and went to the door behind the desk, knocking twice sharply. “Mr. Kincaid? Your three o’clock appointment is here.” He pushed the door open.
“Heavens, it’s cold in here,” Margaret said as she followed him into the inner office.
The lawyer’s office was a big room with a massive oak desk facing the door, a swivel chair behind the desk with its back to a bank of windows. Nathan glimpsed a view of snow-covered fields and a frozen lake in the distance. A small black dot was moving across the lake and he heard the faint growl of a snowmobile. Oak file cabinets lined the wall to the right of the doorway and a floor-to-ceiling bookcase covered the wall on the left.
“The window’s open,” Nathan said. He gestured to an open sash near one of the filing cabinets. “That explains the cold.”
“Why would someone have the window open when it’s barely zero outside?” Margaret put her hand on the radiator near the door. “The heat’s on but it can’t compete. I wonder where he went. I told him we’d be here between three and four.”
Nathan went to the desk and looked down at the squat black telephone, the metal in/out baskets, and three massive books, each with several tufts of paper sticking out the ends. A computer keyboard and monitor sat on a side desk, the screen on the monitor dark.
“It’s on,” he said, looking at the power light on the monitor. “Where’s the lawyer?”
“Perhaps he got his days confused.” Margaret watched as Nathan went around the desk and looked at the papers on the top, picking up one clipped clump and reading it. “I don’t think you should do that. That’s probably privileged communication between attorney and client.”
“Nothing here but a letter from Darla somebody and some contracts.” Nathan tossed the papers back on the desk. “A seed company contract.”
“It’s probably still private.” Margaret turned toward the outer office. “I think we should wait in the secretary’s office. If he doesn’t return soon, I’ll leave a note.”
Nathan crossed behind the desk. “I think we should see why this window is open.”
“Perhaps it’s broken. Or maybe he spilled something and was trying to get the smell out. Or maybe he got overheated.” Margaret scowled at the empty chair. “Maybe he gets hot flashes. If there’s a God, men will get hot flashes so they know how it feels.”
Nathan paused and regarded her over one shoulder. “Men know what a hot flash feels like, trust me.”
“Really?” She looked at him suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
“Do you get all nervous and flustered feeling? Do you break out in a sweat and feel like your face is red and funny looking?”
Margaret nodded.
“Are you exhausted when it’s over?”
She nodded again.
Nathan shrugged. “That happens to me whenever I see you and I get a hard on. Trust me. I know what a hot flash feels like.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Margaret muttered. She crossed the room slowly. “I suppose we can have hot flashes together, then.”
“Not a problem,” Nathan said absently as he peered out the window. He leaned over, looking down. “Damn. I was afraid of something like this. I knew this trip wasn’t going to work out the way I wanted.”
“What?” She came up behind him and tried to wedge herself in front to look out.
Nathan shifted position, blocking her access to the window as he pulled his gun from the holster near his waist and held it at his side. “Stay in the front office.”
“What is it? Is something wrong?” She leaned over the windowsill then saw the gun in his hand. “What is it, Nathan?”
“Don’t touch anything.” He pulled her back from the opening, one hand on her bicep. “Margaret, don’t look.”
“Oh, dear.” She looked up at Nathan, her eyes big. “Is he—?”
He steered her past the desk and toward the antechamber. “Don’t touch anything, okay? It’s a crime scene.”
“Is he—?” Margaret stopped when they entered the small foyer outside the office door.
“I’m guessing he is, but I need to check. Wait here.”
“Should I call 911?” Margaret reached for her Coach bag then saw Nathan already had a cell phone out and was talking into it.
“FBI Special Agent Nathan Stokes, calling from Possum Bottom, Lac Qui Parle County, Minnesota. 925-B Main Street. A male victim is down in the alley behind the building. It appears to be homicide. Hold the line; I’m going to verify status.” He pulled the phone away from his ear and looked at Margaret. “Stay here. Promise me.”
She nodded weakly as he whirled and headed for an exit door opposite the steps they’d ascended. “Nathan?”
He paused and looked back at her.
“Homicide?”
He nodded. “Lots of blood.”
“Oh.” She leaned against the wall. “I see.”
He noted her white face and the way she clutched her handbag. “I wish you hadn’t seen. I’ll be right back.” He headed for the door, cursing the bad luck that tossed a dead body in his path while he was on the most important vacation of his life.
As he’d hoped, the door led to a staircase, dimly lit and stark. One flight down and he was out the back door, angling it open with his shoulder while raising his gun, the cell phone tucked into his coat pocket.
He was in an alleyway, one dark red truck near a trash container but otherwise empty. Low buildings on the other side of the alley faced away, presenting the appearance of rude spectators who chose not to look at the bloody body on the ground. Deep tire tracks in the snow showed where the truck had come through the alley.
Nathan knelt next to the body lying on the only clear spot of pavement. He was careful not to step in the blood pool extending beyond the man’s head in a fan-like pattern. The victim was dressed in dark pants and a brown sweater, the body on its side and head pressed against the pavement. When Nathan touched an out-flung wrist, he realized the man was frozen to the ground. He stood and backed away carefully, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket. The agitated sound of the voice on the other end told him how often they got calls from FBI agents in Possum Bottom, Minnesota.
It was shaping up to be a very, very interesting vacation.

Buy Now:
Resplendence Publishing

Nowhere To Run
by JL Wilson

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 978-1-93499-213-5
Print ISBN: 978-1-60735-026-2

Retired sheriff Harry Mortonson has just found the woman of his dreams, and there’s no way in hell he’s letting her get hurt — or get away from him. He’s got ideas about a future with her and they don’t include a stalker.

Chapter One

Harry Mortonson sipped his coffee, watching the woman out of the corner of his eye. She’d been following him for almost ten minutes. He had no illusions it was his studly body or his handsome face. Grayish-white hair and a white mustache tended to make women see him as Grandpa, not a babe magnet, and while he was still in good shape for a guy in his mid-fifties, he wasn’t male model material.
No, it had to be something else. He was wandering around Rice Park in downtown St. Paul in the middle of a cold, albeit sunny, December afternoon. As a hardy Minnesotan, he didn’t mind the wind chill. Besides, it was Winter Carnival time and there was a lot to see The ice sculptures, as always, were breathtaking. Life-sized carvings of this year’s theme, “Childhood Dreams”, all dotted the two-block square park. Harry had been standing near his namesake, Harry Potter, when he first spotted her.
She was an attractive woman. Of course, who knew what her body looked like under that red winter coat just barely covering her butt? It was a nice butt, Harry had to admit. He caught glimpses of it as she moved and her coat shifted. She was about five inches shorter than his five-ten and her legs were maybe a bit heavy, but he liked women with some meat on their bones. She wore sneakers, which told him she wasn’t from Minnesota. With three feet of snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens, she really needed boots. Plus she wasn’t wearing a hat or scarf and her gloves looked flimsy. It made him cold just to watch her.
He took another sip of coffee and moved to a Pooh and Friends sculpture. The woman followed him, two statues away. Her face was an almost perfect oval with smooth skin and cheeks red from the cold. She probably didn’t wear much makeup, if any. Her brown-gray hair was short, thick and sort of fluffy, ruffled by the breeze and her nervous habit of running a hand through the tumbled mass, as she did now. She seemed to be arguing with herself, glancing at him, moving closer then away. Her expression continually changed from hopeful to thoughtful to angry to worried to scared to hopeful again. Harry was accustomed to people who made a habit of hiding what they thought, what they felt and what they might do. He found her openness…charming.
At that moment she glanced around and their eyes met. She flushed then shrugged. He smiled. She must have taken it as an invitation because she drifted nearer to him. “I can’t decide if I should or not,” she confessed.
This was intriguing. “Should what?” he prompted.
She chewed on her lower lip. No make-up, he decided. Most women who wore lipstick didn’t chew it off. “Ask you for help.”
He blinked in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“She said you’d help me.” The woman glanced back over one shoulder. “She said you’d be here because you volunteer for the Carnival.”
Harry followed her gaze and saw his father, Ben, standing with Ettie Laughton, Ben’s next-door neighbor. They both grinned broadly and waved. “Oh, no,” Harry muttered. Ettie and Ben were always trying to fix him up with somebody. It looked like they’d selected this poor woman as their next sacrificial lamb. “Ma’am, I’m not in law enforcement any more. I retired a month ago. I doubt if I can help.”
“Mac.”
“What?”
“My name is Mac. Mac Shefflington.” The woman stuck out a hand. “Actually my name is M. C. Shefflington, but everybody calls me Mac.”
Harry automatically shook the woman’s hand. “Miss Shefflington, I don’t know why Ettie said I could help.”
The woman—Mac—stood her ground, looking up at him with eyes that were not quite blue, not quite green. “I’m being stalked by a man who used to love me and who tried to kill me ten years ago. The police won’t help me. Ettie said you would.”
All breath left Harry for one frozen moment. A stalker. Thirty-five years ago he failed to help a woman and she was murdered by her lover. A sudden vivid memory of a blood-spattered body jumped into his mind. He looked beyond the crowd to his father, who watched him intently. Ben nodded once and Harry knew what Ben was thinking. You owe it to Mai Mi.
Harry clenched his paper cup, spilling coffee on his woolen glove. “Did you talk to the police?”
“I talked to your successor, Sheriff Sheldon. He said he couldn’t help me. He said there wasn’t enough proof.” The woman reached into a bright red tote bag slung over one shoulder. “I have the files here.” She held out a blue pocket folder. “There’s a picture in there of Tom. I hired somebody to take an old photo and change it, to make him look older. Tom disappeared right after he raped and tortured me. No one’s seen him since. At least, no one will admit to seeing him.”
“After he did what?” Harry had a hard time getting the words out. He dropped his coffee cup into a trashcan and pulled off his glove. Taking the folder, he extracted the papers from the folder, looking at the top one in the half-inch-thick stack. It was what appeared to be a composite photo of a graying brown-haired man in his fifties with a square, chiseled face. His dark brown eyes were flat and expressionless.
She was matter-of-fact. “He raped, tortured, and tried to kill me. I escaped.” She tapped the folder in his hands. “It’s all there. Tom was with the CIA. They helped him.”
“The CIA?” Harry shuffled through the papers. They were photocopies of a restraining order, a warrant for an arrest and other legal papers. The dates were in the mid-nineties, in South Carolina. “What does all this mean?”
“Thirty years ago I was a seventeen-year-old college freshman. I fell in love with Tom Donaldson, a twenty-six-year-old Vietnam vet. We had an affair. We talked about getting married. Then he was recruited again, to go back to ’Nam. Tom was a cryptographer and a math genius.”
She looked down at her hands as she spoke, her voice slightly muffled by the high collar of her coat. “Ten years ago, Tom came back. I had just gone through a rough divorce and he sort of swept into my life. We were together for about six months, but he had changed.” She looked up at Harry. “Changed more than what twenty years apart could do. You’ve heard of anger management? When he came back in the ’nineties, Tom needed rage management. I did what I could, but Tom had a rough childhood and wherever he was in the last twenty years, it scarred him—physically and emotionally. Anyway, I got a job offer in upstate New York and I decided to take it. It gave me the perfect excuse to get away from him. Tom didn’t want to move. He hates the cold. A week before I moved, he tried to kill me.”
Harry looked down at the papers. His gaze fell on rape and attempted murder. “According to this he was arrested.”
She nodded. “There was a trial, but he skipped bail and left the country. The FBI tracked him to Canada and they discovered later he fled to Cambodia.”
“FBI? Cambodia?” Harry asked.
“Tom was a CIA agent,” she said, clearing her throat. “I didn’t know it at the time.” She shook her head. “This is all so unbelievably messy.”
Messy? Try just plain unbelievable. The odds of a citizen off the street hooking up with a CIA agent were slim. Harry saw something in those changeable eyes, a look of terror quickly suppressed. “What do you think I can do?”
“I was hoping you could find someone in the government to give me some answers. I can’t get any. You see, I was relocated ten years ago, when he skipped town. The government did it. Whoever was controlling Tom knew they failed. I was moved to Maine first, then I relocated to northern Minnesota.”
“He hates the cold,” Harry murmured.
She gave him a lopsided smile. “Exactly. I wasn’t in protective custody, but I had what they call ‘favored person’ status. I had an agent assigned to my case and I could call any time, day or night, if I needed to. A year ago, my status changed. I was told I didn’t need anonymity anymore. I was told I could resume my old life and my old identity. No one would say why, but I assumed that meant the Agency found out Tom was dead. I moved to the Twin Cities area, thinking I’d get on with my life.”
“And?” Harry prompted.
“Tom’s back, Sheriff. I saw him. It was from far away, in a crowd, but it was him.”
“How do you know it was him?”
She looked at him steadily, her changeable eyes a pale, translucent blue. “He tied me up. He raped me repeatedly. He almost killed me with a knife. You don’t forget the person who does that to you, Sheriff.”
Harry’s face got hot and he nodded, acknowledging the hit. “What I meant was it’s been ten years. People change. How could you be sure?”
She drew in a long, shuddering breath. “I was out skating the other day. I was in the warm-up shed and someone approached outside. He said, ‘Hello, M.C. My Clementine’.” She ran a hand through her hair. Harry saw it tremble. “It was a running joke with us. He came up with little nicknames to match my initials. ‘My Candy’. ‘My Cupid’.” She looked away. “Later, of course, the nicknames weren’t nice, but initially they were funny and cute.”
“Did you see him?” Harry hoped his skepticism didn’t show up in his voice. “Did you see him up close?”
She shook her head. “No. When I heard a bunch of kids outside playing, I came out and found he wrote on my car, in the road dust on the side.”
“What was there?”
“It was ‘I love you’.” She hurried on. “Tom had odd handwriting, an angular but square way of forming his letters. It was almost stylized, like a special font, or Chinese ideograms. I teased him about it once and he said it was because of his training.” She smiled bitterly. “His tone of voice made it clear he didn’t want to discuss it and I didn’t pursue it.” Her eyes were haunted as she stared at the people walking past. “I know it was his handwriting. Please, Sheriff. Just read the file. I know you’re not an official cop any more, but maybe you can help.”
“You talked to the police? Rob Sheldon?”
She nodded. “I went over to his office in Spencer. He told me all my facts, the evidence, were ten years old. He couldn’t do anything to help me. That’s what they said back then, too.”
“They?”
“The cops. They couldn’t do anything until Tom did something. Then he did.” She stared fixedly at the ice sculpture in front of them, kneading the strap of the tote bag in one hand. “It’s not just that I saw him. Josh wrote to me. He was Tom’s best friend. He said a friend of his called to tell him Tom was back in the country. I made some phone calls, but I can’t get any answers from anybody.” She glanced at him then back at the sculptures, squinting as the bright sunlight glinted on the ice. “And all this month, there’s been the tailgating.”
“Tailgating?”
“Someone’s tailgated me to work in the morning three or four times. They almost drove me off the road.” She glanced at the papers Harry still held. “He did that before. Tom always swore he’d get me, Sheriff. I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but I know he’s back.”
“There’s not much I can do.”
He saw the tiny flicker of hope drain out of her. “I know,” she said in a dull voice. “That’s what the police said. They didn’t believe me. I recognize the look.”
Harry tucked the papers back into the folder. “So that’s why you came to me?”
She nodded. “I read an article in the paper about you, before you retired. It said you thought your job was to help the public.” She blew out a shuddering breath. “I should have known the law comes first.”
I shouldn’t get involved with this, Harry thought. It’s not my job any more. He saw the bleak despair in her eyes. Beyond her, on the other side of the Harry Potter sculpture, Ben and Ettie were watching. Ben smiled and nodded.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t try to help you. Let me get some details. I’ll see what I can come up with.” She looked at him with such astonishment Harry smiled. “What? You thought I’d ignore you?”
“Most cops do,” she said in a low voice.
“I’m not a cop, I’m retired. But I can at least talk to Sheriff Sheldon.”
“You look too young to retire.” Her eyes widened and she looked mortified she’d spoken the thought out loud.
Harry was secretly pleased. “After thirty years in law enforcement, it was time to quit while I was ahead. So what does M.C. stand for?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m not sharing that.”
“How come?”
She thrust a hand through her hair. “Trust me. It’s appalling. I legally changed it to M.C. when I was a teenager. My friends call me Mac.” She rummaged in the tote bag again, pulling out a small leather purse. “Here’s my business card. Oh, let me add my numbers.” She jotted down a mobile number, work number, home number, and two email addresses. “I don’t have any numbers printed,” she explained. “In case Tom—” She thrust the small card at him.
“Sure.” Harry tucked it into his wallet. “Can I keep this file?”
“Those are copies. My email is probably the simplest way to reach me.” She started to move away from him.
“So how do you know Ettie?” Harry glanced back at their audience. His father was still a tall, upright man with a bit of stoop to his shoulders. He and Harry looked remarkably alike, with the same long, narrow face and high cheekbones, although Ben’s eyes were a startling blue in the dark tan of his face where Harry’s were gray. Ettie was a tiny, bird-like woman with snow-white hair, enormous thick-lensed glasses and the smoothest skin Harry had ever seen on an eighty-five-year old woman. She was clinging to Ben’s arm and watching them with avid curiosity. Harry knew he’d be in for a grilling later.
Mac followed his gaze. “She and my mom are friends. When I moved here, Mom told me to look in on Ettie, to see if she needed anything.” Mac waved at the elderly couple, who beamed a smile in return. “But she’s got your dad, so I’m guessing she’s fine.”
“What?” Harry looked at his dad, who put an arm around Ettie, giving her a little hug. “You mean they’re—they’re not dating, are they?”
Mac laughed. “The kids are always the last to know. Thanks, Sheriff Mortonson.”
“Mort,” he said.
“Mort?”
“My friends just call me Mort.”
“Mort? Your parents named you Morton Mortonson? That’s almost as cruel as my parents.” She considered. “No, I take that back, my parents were far crueler.”
“Not Mort Mortonson. Just Mort. A shortcut for my last name.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Harold.” He looked at Ben. “I was named for one of my dad’s Army buddies.”
She put up a hand to shade her eyes, examining his face. “No,” she finally said. “No, you’re not a Harold.”
He shrugged. “Sorry. I am.”
“No.” She smiled, little fans appearing at the corner of her suddenly green eyes. “No, you’re a Harry.”
The way she said his name sent goose bumps down Harry’s spine. She breathed it, with a soft emphasis on the first syllable. No one had ever guessed his first name before. Heck, nobody had even tried to guess it.
“Well, you got it in one.” He looked down at her sneakers. “You need to get some boots.”
“It’s silly, but I don’t want to jinx my stay in Minnesota by thinking it might be permanent. I’m afraid I’ll have to move again, because of Tom.” She stuck out a hand. “I appreciate you listening to me, Sheriff.”
He could feel the meager warmth of her hand through the thin gloves. “Maybe it’s nothing,” he said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Maybe. But I’d hate to get my hopes up.” She started to move away. “Should I call you later?”
He considered it. “I’ll call you. Maybe in a day or so?”
She looked up at him, her cheeks pink with cold. “I’ll look forward to it, Mort.”
Harry watched her walk across the square as the snow swirled, caught in an eddy of air. He folded the bulky papers and stuffed them into his coat pocket, patting it down to make it lie flat. Then he pulled on his gloves and started walking toward the gazebo, where the other members of the Security Committee would be gathering. His role was strictly advisory and had been for the last ten years since he volunteered at the Carnival. It was a low maintenance job and one he enjoyed.
Harry turned when a flash of light on metal shone brightly, reflecting off the ice sculptures. He peered through the crowd.
Tom Donaldson was watching him from across the crowded park.
Harry was so shocked he didn’t move. In his second of immobility Donaldson smiled and vanished into the press of people. Harry jumped onto the seat of a nearby park bench with a leap that sent him skidding. He brought thirty years of cop focus into play, his attention centered on the thick knot of gawkers where Donaldson had been. There was a flash of metal again then Harry had him. A stocky man in a navy blue pea coat with bright silver buttons was moving unhurriedly through the crowd.
The artist’s guess about Donaldson’s appearance was surprisingly accurate. Harry caught another glimpse of brown hair as Donaldson walked down South Street away from the park, hurrying toward Grand Avenue and the upscale yuppie shops there. Harry hopped off the bench, striding through the crowds at an angle to his quarry. He craned his neck to see over the shoulder of a beefy man blocking the sidewalk in front of him, seeing Donaldson going into a store with a faux Greek façade over the door. Harry followed. He’d seen catalogs from the store. They sold pricey knickknacks for the home, like ritzy doorknobs and fancy shovels.
The shop had three long, rectangular rooms with each room split into three smaller theme areas. He looked through each one but didn’t see Donaldson. There were a lot of corners, outcroppings and tall things hindering a clear line of sight so Harry started walking down the central room, eyes sweeping the space, looking for Donaldson in one of the side nooks through the doorways that connected the rooms together.
“Can I help you, sir?”
The clerk was tall and angular with spiky, yellow-tipped brown hair. She also wore the ugliest eyeglasses Harry had ever seen. “Just browsing,” he mumbled.
“We have some marvelous retro toys,” she encouraged, gesturing to a display of wind-up robots, balsa wood airplanes and Slinky toys on a table.
“Cool.” Harry glanced into the adjoining room with a display of kitchen items. A lot of the kitchen tools looked like those at the firehouse where he volunteered for so many pancake breakfasts: heavy cast-iron skillets, thick glassware, a blender that looked straight out of the 1930s and ice cream scoops heavy enough to use as a murder weapon.
“Retro kitchenware,” the woman gushed. “So chic now.”
Chic. He should tell the guys at the firehouse. They could put their stuff on eBay and make a fortune. Harry saw a dark blue coat at the end of the building, going behind a large, decorated screen. He edged around the clerk and moved through the cluttered aisles, dodging people and displays until he reached the ornate screen. It was almost seven feet tall, composed of a thin fabric in vivid blues and yellows. Harry stared at it, watching as the light fabric swayed.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
It was another clerk, this one a young man who also wore amazingly ugly eyeglasses. Perhaps it was a prerequisite for employment. Harry nodded and walked up to the screen, peering around it to find a small door. “Where does this door go?”
The clerk correctly assumed Harry wasn’t interested in purchasing. He turned his attention to a young couple who looked more lucrative. “Storage,” he said. Harry waited until they were deep in conversation, then he slipped behind the screen and tried the door. As he expected, it opened easily into a big room, thirty by fifty feet and so cold Harry knew it was poorly heated.
He pulled out his Glock from its belt holster and held it loosely. The room felt empty except for boxes and bulky items dressed in plastic bubble wrap or tissue paper. Harry moved carefully through the space, noting the cheap indoor-outdoor carpet that muffled his footsteps. There was nowhere to hide, except behind one of the big wrapped objects. He walked quietly, focusing all of his senses and listening to what they told him. He smelled the tang of snow and his suspicions were soon confirmed when he found an outside door leading to the parking lot. He opened it and was blinded by the sunlight off the snow outside. Compared to the dim interior light, it was like walking into a nova.
Harry glanced down, seeing the mucky melted snow and dirt at the doorstep. Footprints led away from the door, around the side of the building. Harry closed the door and looked back into the big room. Something bothered him, something out of place. He walked down the row of shelves, glancing right and left, trying to determine what was wrong. He was almost to the door leading back into the store when he noticed it.
The lighting was off. Nine lamps hung from the ceiling on long chains, providing illumination at evenly spaced intervals. One light in the center flickered. Harry walked under it and peered up. Then he looked down at the worn carpet under the lamp, seeing the marks where a chair had been dragged. A wooden armchair sat against the wall opposite the flickering light. Harry crossed the space, staring intently at the chair.
Aligned precisely in the middle of the hard wooden seat was a folded scrap of paper. He opened the note and stared at the bizarre handwriting. It was square and angular, so distorted that for an instant Harry didn’t see letters, but rather an odd art exercise. Then the letters came into focus and he read, “Stay away, old man.”
“You son of a bitch.” Harry folded the note and stuffed it into his shirt pocket under his sweater. Holstering his gun, he turned on his heel and strode out of the room, his hands clenched into fists.
There’s the proof she needs, Harry thought as he emerged back into the store from behind the elaborate screen. He got through the store and back out on the street, jamming his sunglasses on his face as he scanned the milling tourists in town for the day. Tom Donaldson made a mistake. He left evidence behind and that was enough to get Mac Shefflington some police protection.
Or was it? It wasn’t until Harry got back to the park that he reconsidered his original idea of calling Rob Sheldon, the current incumbent in Spencer in the Sheriff’s Department. Harry thought it through, sifting ideas and rationale through thirty years of police experience. If Mac was right and a government agency was involved, then more might be at stake than just a woman’s life. Law enforcement and politics were often intertwined, and he wondered if this was one of those cases.
In less than a minute, he knew what he had to do. There was one simple test he could use to find out if Rob Sheldon would extend help or not. He glanced at his watch. It wasn’t yet noon. There was plenty of time to test his theories today.
Harry saw the committee members he was supposed to meet, grouped in the gazebo at the far side of the park. The crinkle of paper in his shirt pocket was like a goad. He jammed his hands in his pockets, eyes flickering right and left, seeking Donaldson. But everyone seemed intent on having a good time on a sunny winter Friday in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Old man,” Harry muttered. “That bastard is my age.” He squared his shoulders in his dark gray wool coat. “I’ll show you who’s old.”

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Brilliant Disguise
by JL Wilson

Resplendence Publishing

eBook ISBN: 987-193-499-2456
Print ISBN: 978-193-499-2463

Nick Baxter, an undercover FBI agent, thinks his BRILLIANT DISGUISE will fool the hicks in New Providence, Iowa. They won’t suspect he’s there investigating widow Shannon Delgardie, under suspicion of treason. What Nick doesn’t know is that everybody in town is conspiring to protect her and investigate him in return.

Note: Prologue omitted.

Chapter One

Two months later
Nick Baxter had been trying to meet the Widow Delgardie for a week. He had several sightings. He saw her in her flame red Volvo C30 sports coupe. He spotted her at the library. He saw her riding a bicycle. But even in a town as tiny as New Providence, Iowa, it was proving difficult to arrange an accidental meeting. She’d already run from California and the mess her late husband was involved in. If Nick didn’t play it right, she’d run from him, too. He considered the problem on this lovely late May morning as he walked into the Fourth Street Java Bean Café for his early morning cup of joe and chat with “the boys.”
When Arthur Newmarket’s small farm went up for sale six weeks ago on the outskirts of town, the FBI jumped at the chance to establish a presence in the town. The old man had died three months ago and left the house and surrounding farm to Katherine Dalton, his only surviving relative and mother of Shannon Delgardie. Katherine put the house, its furnishings, and the farm on the market. That was why Nick was in New Providence, population 1,500, trying to strike up the acquaintance of the Widow.
Now, a week after moving in, he sipped his morning coffee and chatted with the farmers gathered at the Bean.
“So, how’re things out at Arthur’s place?” Mike Newsome asked. Mike was a regular at the Bean, along with Harvey Gleason and Marty Glick. The three men were all in their seventies, all were stooped, big-boned, tan, and still ‘farmed some’ near town.
“Good.” Nick sipped his coffee and wondered if he could sabotage something at the farmhouse. Then he’d have an excuse to call Katherine Dalton.
The waitress, Velma, was grinding coffee beans behind the scarred linoleum counter. “Lotta beans there,” Marty commented, eyeing Velma in the chipped mirrors that lined the wall.
“It’s for Shannon,” Velma said seriously. “She stays up those wicked late hours. She said she likes my blend. Says it’s got a kick.”
Mike snorted. “That girl always was odd.”
“In what way?” Nick asked.
The Widow was a frequent topic of conversation around town, along with the price of soybean futures, ground soil moisture, and the efficacy of pre-emergent versus post-emergent herbicides. So far, based on the various gossip he’d gleaned, Shannon Delgardie was financially well-off, not social when it came to dating men from town, and “far too clever for her own good.” That last phrase seemed to be universally echoed wherever Nick heard talk about The Widow.
“Oh, pick one,” Harvey said, hopping into the conversation. “She’s always had her head in a computer. If it wasn’t computers, it was car engines.”
Velma nodded. “Shannon was different, all right. Hasn’t changed much, either.”
“And she stays up all night?” Nick prompted Velma.
“No, she stays up late and only sleeps about five hours,” Velma corrected. Her tightly-permed curls bobbed when she shook her head. “That’s what she said.”
They all silently contemplated that fact. “I couldn’t do it,” Nick finally said. “I need more sleep than that.” He glanced at his watch. Hell, no wonder he never saw Widow Delgardie for morning coffee. She probably wasn’t out of bed yet. He’d have to find some other way to meet her.
“She’s good with those computers,” Mike put in. “I had a question on that laptop my niece gave me, and Shannon came over and figured it out. Now I get email and can browse web sites by just pressing a single button. She found this one site she thought I’d like and she showed me how to get to it.”
“What, the Playboy web site?” Marty asked with a grin, displaying large yellowed teeth.
They all chuckled genially. “No,” Mike said. “There’s this place over by Tipton that’s got a camera in the fields and you can watch the corn grow.” When he saw the look on his audience’s face, he hurried on, “Plus it’s got stuff about corn research.”
“Oh, well, that makes sense, then,” Harvey said. “If you want to watch corn grow, just drive a quarter mile outside of town.”
“Really?” Nick was leasing out the fields around his farmhouse with the excuse that he was too busy with his consulting job to do any farming this year. He made a mental note about Corn Cam. It wouldn’t hurt to brush up on farming knowledge. The little he remembered from his childhood on a farm in Missouri forty years ago was strained to the limit here in the heart of Iowa. “I’ve got a couple of computer questions,” Nick said off-handedly. “Think she’d mind if I dropped by and asked her?”
The men all looked at Velma, the fount of information about Shannon. “I think she’d be okay with that,” Velma said, relishing the brief moment of attention. “But wait until the afternoon. She sleeps in most mornings.”
What would it be like to sleep past seven-thirty in the morning? Nick could almost see the thought in the air over the heads covered by caps embroidered with assorted seed company logos. “Thanks Velma,” Nick said. “Maybe I’ll drop by and ask her.”
He walked outside with the other men and called Katherine Dalton when he got back to the farm. “Mr. Baxter,” she said, sounding pleased. “How can I help you?”
“I have a question about the window air conditioner in the kitchen,” he said, hoping that she wouldn’t be able to answer it off the top of her head. “It’s making a noise and I’m wondering when it was put in.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. “I’ve got some of Arthur’s papers. Maybe we can find when and where he bought it.”
“I hate to put you to the trouble.”
“Oh, no, that’s fine. I’ll see if I can find the papers and call you.”
Nick mentally cursed. The people here were too accommodating for words. “I’m coming in to town this afternoon, why don’t I stop by?”
“I have a library committee meeting this morning and I won’t be home until lunchtime. So I could look for the papers after lunch.”
“Why don’t I stop by around two or three? Would that be okay for you?”
“That should be fine. Do you know where I live?”
“Yes, ma’am, I believe so. You’re in that old Victorian house on Wood Street?” He added, with what he hoped was the right amount of indifference, “I’ve heard your daughter is a whiz with computers.”
“She is that,” Katherine Dalton agreed after a brief pause.
“Do you think she’d be able to chat with me this afternoon? I have a computer question.”
“Hmm.” There was a long pause then she said, “Yes, that should be fine.”
“Good. I don’t want to intrude.”
“Oh, no problem. We’ll see you later.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Now if Shannon Delgardie would just stay put today he could finally meet her. The subtle approach wasn’t working. It was time to put the McBride plan into effect.
Nick did several hours of work on his home computer. The last year of his life had been complicated and he still had paperwork to wrap up explaining what happened. His approaching retirement after twenty-five years with the Bureau was looming.
He stared out at the cornfield in the distance, wondering what the hell he was going to do. Eight months to go, he thought. Time to get out. He was tired of fieldwork and didn’t want a desk. When an agent got tired of fieldwork, mistakes happened. His shoulder twitched, a souvenir of the mistake he made a year ago during the botched mission in New York. This would be his last field assignment and he was grateful he’d go out with active status, even if it was a slam-dunk job. Nick shook his head angrily. There weren’t any good answers about retirement in the farm fields, just like there weren’t any answers back in D.C. or Chicago. Time to get this job over with and move on to whatever awaited him.
* * * *
That afternoon Nick drove into town, his pickup kicking up dust on the gravel lane that led to the main road. He wore a clean black T-shirt and his patched work jeans, which were loose enough to cover his ankle holster. He pulled up to the gray Victorian house with the dark blue trim. There was an outside staircase leading to the third story and a wraparound front porch with several rockers.
Nick tugged the old-fashioned bell pull and heard its shrill ringing inside. The door was a lovely oak, ornately carved with a leaded glass inset at the top. He stepped back to view the design and discovered it was a naked fairy woman with long blonde hair, sitting atop a water lily.
Katherine Dalton pulled open the door and smiled when she saw him. “I was just admiring your door,” he said as he stepped inside.
Mrs. Dalton was a tiny woman with white-tipped black hair, a smooth complexion, and alert blue eyes. “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” she agreed. “John bought it.”
“John?”
“John Delgardie. Shannon’s husband.” She closed the door. “Her late husband.”
“Was he an artist?”
“No. John liked pretty things.” Katherine smiled but it didn’t seem to reach her eyes. “I found some papers that perhaps you’d like to keep. They’re to do with Arthur’s house. Please, come in.” She gestured him into a large, square room to the left of the foyer. The room was a cheerful mix of furniture styles with a unifying color of warm brown. All of the furniture was antique, comfortable-looking, and in beautiful condition.
“What a lovely room,” Nick said and he meant it.
“Thank you,” Katherine said, leading him to the couch. “Please sit down. Could I get you some coffee?”
“Only if it’s already made.”
She smiled. “I always have a pot of coffee going. You get comfortable and I’ll get us a cup.”
It would be hard to be uncomfortable in this room. It had a lived-in look with books scattered about and a wicker basket holding knitting with the needles sticking up. There were homemade afghans on the backs of several overstuffed chairs and a tabby cat was ensconced in the window seat, snoring softly. Nick felt tension ease out of him as he watched the approaching rain clouds scudding past outside the big bay window, lace curtains fluttering in the breeze.
“Here we are,” Katherine said, coming back into the room carrying a large tray. He leapt to his feet and took it from her, setting it on the coffee table after she’d moved some books. On the ornate silver tray were a coffee pot, cups, saucers, plates, and a dish of cookies. “We can’t have coffee without cookies,” she announced as she poured him a cup of coffee. He carefully took the cup and saucer and was relieved to find it wasn’t as fragile as it looked. “I made peanut butter cookies and oatmeal cookies this morning.”
He took a plate and plucked two cookies from the tray. She eyed him as he took an experimental bite. “Wow, this is great,” he said, biting into a peanut butter cookie. The taste took him back to his childhood and his Grandma Svitkovitch, who baked every Saturday and whose kitchen always smelled fabulous.
“I hope you’re finding Arthur’s house comfortable?”
He nodded and sipped his coffee. “It’s very nice. I was lucky to get it.”
“Arthur’s death wasn’t sudden, but I still didn’t quite expect it. I suppose whenever one’s contemporaries die, it’s a surprise.” She sighed and nibbled on a cookie. “Although at my age, it shouldn’t surprise me.”
He bit into another cookie and relaxed back on the couch. “This is a beautiful home, Mrs. Dalton.”
“Call me Katherine, everybody does,” she said, settling back in her chair. “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? I was afraid I’d have to move into an apartment when the house got too much for me. But Shannon needed a change and I needed the help, so she moved back here.” She regarded Nick with bright, dark blue eyes. “It’s not very exciting for her, but she seems happy. I suspect she didn’t mind leaving California.”
“Is that where she lived before moving here?” he asked politely.
“Yes, out in Silicon Valley.” Katherine leaned forward to nibble her cookie. “Any place that’s named ‘Silicon Something’ can’t be very pleasant, don’t you think?”
He smiled. “I think you’re right. I’ve been to the Valley and it’s not as beautiful as here.”
“Most people look at Iowa and see flat fields,” Katherine said, regarding him with her alert blue eyes. “You don’t?”
“I lived on a farm in Missouri when I was little, but we moved because of my father’s job so I grew up in a Chicago suburb. Any place that’s green and growing is refreshing to me.”
She nibbled on her cookie. “Have you traveled much?”
“Yes, I have. Why do you ask?”
“You just have the look of a man who’s traveled. I’m surprised you settled for a little town like New Providence.”
“It’s convenient for my work,” he said, hoping his evasive answer would suffice.
“Hmm.” She gestured toward a box on the floor. “That’s the records I found about Arthur’s house. I suspect the air conditioner receipt is in there.”
Nick looked inside the box. “I’ll go through these and bring them back.”
“Oh, no need. They have to do with the house, so you keep them.”
He sipped his coffee, considering how to angle the conversation to the topic of interest. “I heard your daughter knows quite a bit about computers.”
“She’s something of an expert. You said you had a problem?”
“Yes, I was wondering if she could help me. I have a computer problem that has me a bit stumped.” He was pleased at how casual it sounded.
“Hmm.” Katherine looked at the ceiling. “We can check. I’m sure she’d be happy to help you. Shannon’s always willing to share her knowledge with others.” She sipped her coffee and regarded him over the rim of her delicate rose-painted cup. “What did you say you do? You’re a consultant?”
He nodded. “I do consulting with Debolt Aerospace, in Cedar Rapids. Military consulting.”
“Ah. Military.” A brief mischievous gleam lit her blue eyes.
“Defense work. I can’t really talk about the details because of security issues.” It was a damn useful cover.
“Of course.” She smiled at him as she finished her cookie. “My husband was in military intelligence. I remember it well. All so secretive and hush-hush.”
A sudden stab of concern made Nick tense. “World War Two?”
“Yes, the Big War. And for a time after the war.” She set her coffee cup down. “Let’s see if Shannon is in.” She stood and Nick set his cup down, following her to the oak staircase leading out of the front foyer and upward.
“I use the ground floor and Shannon uses the upper floor,” Katherine explained as she climbed the staircase, grasping the elaborately carved banister and moving carefully. They emerged on a landing with several rooms opening off of it. One looked like a bedroom and one like a bathroom. “I used to have my bedroom up here but it’s getting a bit much to climb the stairs. So I moved downstairs and we used this for storage now.”
Katherine led the way to a door which, when opened, revealed another staircase. She knocked loudly inside the door, but there was no answer. She sighed. “She’s probably got her music on,” Katherine explained. She pressed what looked like a doorbell and proceeded up the stairs. “We installed it to flash a light so she knows somebody’s coming up. Before we did, I just about gave her a heart attack whenever I’d come upstairs and she had her music on.”
Sure enough, Nick could hear the pounding beat of Bruce Springsteen wailing out “Born in the U.S.A.“ There was no way anyone could hear a polite knock on the door.
He took a deep breath and steeled himself. He was finally going to meet The Widow.
* * * *
Shannon noticed the flashing red light on the wall above her and pressed a button on the desk. The light quit flashing as she picked up the remote control to tone down Bruce. The email message on her screen seemed to glow malignantly.
You have one week then someone you love will die. Perhaps it will be your mother, or perhaps Evie’s children, or perhaps one of your friends. Someone you love will die. You know you can’t trust the FBI. You husband did, and look what happened to him.
She’d gotten the same message, or a variation of it, several times a week since she’d moved to Iowa. The two files she’d managed to find on John’s computer told her the terrorists making the threats weren’t kidding about the FBI. They’d given her one month to find all the damn files and decrypt them or else.
Shannon shoved aside her worry with a resolute sigh and yawned until her jaw cracked. The exhaustion had become a normal part of her life since her marriage to John three years previously. She looked at the email again. This was her problem and she had to solve it before others got hurt. She had a week. One more week.
The panic that was never far away threatened. Her stupidity had landed her family and friends in this mess. Someone was watching, waiting to strike if she failed. At least in a town the size of New Providence it was easy to spot a stranger.
She jerked her mind away from that problem and turned to look at her mother. There was only one newcomer to town and he was walking up her stairs.
So this is the FBI guy, Shannon thought. He was tall and solidly built with a thick thatch of dark hair liberally streaked with gray at the temples. He had a weathered look around his shrewd gray eyes—eyes that were gazing at her with curiosity. She ran a hand through her shaggy dark brown hair. She’d been expecting this visit and she’d scoped him out from a distance, but close up he was far more attractive. Shannon suddenly wished she’d worn some makeup.
Oh well. What you see is what you get. She plastered a smile on her face and prepared to meet the enemy.

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