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The growl of the powerful engine turned heads among the early tourist crowd as Ben Asher rode the Harley hog along the waterfront. It was early evening and the sun was just slipping down below the ocean, tickling the quiet wavelets with pink and purple, painting the sky rich shades of rose and crimson.
He let the big bike drift to a stop near one of the piers, pausing to let the familiar essence of the tourist trap town wash over him—the smells of hot dogs and pretzel stands, the salty tang of the sea, the screams of laughter from people and the squawks of gulls.
The beauty of the coastal town made little impression on him as he started up the motorcycle again and, making a sharp turn from Main onto Pine and out into the countryside, finally slowed to pass through an ornate gateway into the parking lot of The Club. He cut the engine and, in the sudden silence that followed, gulls squawked at the intrusion from the rooftops of the elegant country club. Music and laughter spilled out from the upscale establishment as well dressed people came and went from the celebration inside.
Celebrating was not something Ben planned to do tonight. This was a command performance, his presence having been required by the town’s councillors to introduce him as the newly-appointed sheriff, even if it was a temporary situation while Sheriff Lawton was on her honeymoon.
He straddled the bike for a few minutes longer, putting off his appearance with the town’s movers and shakers. He unzipped his leather jacket, enjoying the nip of the cool evening air Seven years had passed since he’d shaken the dust of Lobster Cove from his feet, and he wasn’t happy to be back.
Kathryn Morgan gripped the smooth wood of the low balcony rail to steady herself as she surveyed the glittering crowd swaying rhythmically to music on the small, crowded dance floor below. She’d drunk champagne on an empty stomach to bolster herself for this evening and already the bubbly brew was taking affect, making her light-headed and manically happy.
She had balked at coming here tonight; knowing it would be too painful to bear. He was going to be here. Pain and anger had ambushed her when they’d told her the town was holding a special celebration dinner for homecoming hero and new acting sheriff, Ben Asher. How she once had longed to see his face again, and then later prayed she never would.
Under the crystal chandeliers in The Club’s ballroom were the same familiar faces. People she’d known all her life. No, not known, she corrected herself. Kathryn Fitzgerald had been too lowly to actually be friends with these folk who even now tolerated her only because she was Ketler Morgan Junior’s wife. These were the upper echelons of this small town society, people who nodded acknowledgement of her because of her place at the top of the heap. But friends? No, her friends weren’t here tonight. Kathryn sighed. She’d done what she had to do for all the right reasons. What a pity the outcome was so wrong.
She scanned the room for a glimpse of him, telling herself it didn’t matter, that she’d feel nothing after all this time. Had to feel nothing. Then he was there, looking exactly like he had when he’d boarded that bus seven years ago and broken her heart. She knew he couldn’t be the same. Time had surely changed both of them, but for a moment, she yearned to pretend she was eighteen years old again, to have him take her in his arms and let her think he had come back for her.
The champagne had upset her balance and she clung tightly to the bannister rail as she carefully negotiated the ten stairs and stepped down onto the crowded floor. Dancing bodies milled around her and a Big Band tune sang in her senses as she struggled to catch another glimpse of him through the crowd.
There he was. Without conscious thought, her feet found a path through the crowd toward him and then he stood before her. She saw immediately that while he looked the same, there were subtle differences beyond the seven years that had passed since they’d last met. Back then, he’d had the gawkiness of youth with the foreshadowing strength of the man he might become.
And now—now he’d fulfilled that promise of manhood; the veiled glances of every woman in the room were testament to that. But there was the stamp of hard experience on his face, lines around his beautiful brown eyes. Ben Asher. The man she’d once loved so deeply she thought she’d die when he boarded the bus bound for the military training camp.
Mesmerized, Kathryn moved into his arms as naturally as if she’d never been out of them, and he hugged her to him in a reflex action that spoke volumes about his feelings. They swayed to the slow and sentimental tune the band now played, neither of them speaking. She wasn’t surprised their dancing steps carried them through the big French doors and out onto the shadowed terrace. No surprise, either, as their lips met and melded in remembered passion.
She clung to him, her mouth drinking him in as all her other senses sang with the feel and scent of the man she’d loved so long ago. He groaned softly as her fingers smoothed the thick dark hair at the nape of his neck and then touched warm flesh beneath his shirt collar.
Her own flesh burned with desire at his touch as long ago dreams began to stir and awaken. Dreams that were even more impossible than when they’d been young and deliriously in love.
The dream was broken when an icy voice spoke from the doorway, “Well, Asher, I see you’ve met my wife.”
They jumped apart like guilty things surprised. A feeling akin to physical pain flooded Kathryn as Ben pushed her roughly from him. The pain intensified, squeezing her heart, as she registered the sudden fury and contempt in his eyes as his gaze flicked between her and Ket Morgan Junior. Her husband.
It was a look that chased her dreams away so that when Ket moved to her side, taking her arm, she submitted dismally. Her head low, she heard the raw edge of anger concealed like a knife blade in her husband’s smooth voice as he said, “I must apologize for Kathryn’s behavior, Acting Chief Asher. It would appear she’s had a little too much to drink.”
“I apologize too, Mr. Morgan. I’d forgotten she was a married woman.”
“Ah, yes, I believe you knew my wife some years ago.” Ket’s voice was civil and coated in poison. Kathryn flinched as he went on. “I guess she chose the better man.”
Ket grinned down at her in a parody of the indulgent husband. It was a performance deserving of an Academy Award, convincing onlookers of his devotion to his wife. Only Kathryn could feel the cruel bite of his fingers into her arm through the thin material of her sleeve.
“I guess you could say that,” Ben replied, his tone of voice causing a quick frown to cross Ket’s face. “And I do apologize for the misunderstanding. It certainly won’t happen again.” Ben spoke to Ket but his eyes flicked to Kathryn.
“Oh, I don’t blame you, Asher. My wife is a very attractive woman.” The triumphant possessiveness in Ket’s voice made her squirm; but Ben Asher’s words echoed in her soul: It certainly won’t happen again.
The words rang in her ears all through the rest of that miserable evening. She heard them even through the bitter row with Ket as they waited for their car to be brought to the front of the club at the end of the evening ball.
Ket had insisted they remain almost to the end of the reception, reminding her of their position in society. A position she’d promised to maintain, he reminded her, his fingers biting again into her upper arm to imprint his words in her mind as his fingers imprinted bruises on her delicate flesh. Nothing had changed. The fact Ben Asher was back in town meant absolutely nothing as far as their wedding vows were concerned. He’d saved his cruelest words for the end of the evening, as Kathryn had shivered miserably beneath her short fur jacket while the car jockey maneuvered Ket’s limousine toward them.
“Don’t go getting your hopes up that he’ll be a shining knight on a white horse come to rescue you, my pretty wife,” Ket hissed in her ear. “Why would he want you, when you’re soiled goods as far as he’s concerned? After all, you’re mine now.”
The car jockey opened the passenger door for her, but she stepped back. Seeing her hesitate, Ket grabbed her by the arm and tried to push her inside. “Don’t you dare make any more of a public spectacle of yourself than you already have. You’re my wife!”
Something inside her snapped. “I’ll never be yours,” she asserted, the wind whipping her words into silence before passers-by could hear. “You don’t want me now, any more than you did when we married.”
“But I promise you, he’ll never have you,” Ket Morgan hissed to his wife’s back, before turning away and getting into the driver’s seat of the big car. Before she could turn around, her husband had put the vehicle in gear and roared away. She watched in shock as he sped through the main gates and out onto the highway, leaving her alone and humiliated.
Glancing down, she saw that Ket’s departing wheels had thrown a sprinkling of muddy rainwater all over her gown and jacket. She smiled bitterly. Now she looked as dirty as she felt.
Ben looked out of the bar window at the sound of raised voices. Kathryn and her husband were arguing in the courtyard, no doubt about her earlier behavior. Guilt nagged at him, but he shrugged and signaled to the bartender to bring him another beer. Their fight had nothing to do with him.
In fact, he thought, maybe he’d yell at his wife if he’d found her coming on to another man the way Kathryn had come on to him. If he had a wife, that is. Trying to shake the memory of how his shock at seeing her again had escalated into burning desire within nanoseconds, he glanced again at the couple standing on the rain-shadowed sidewalk.
He half rose from his seat when the tall, slightly balding Ketler Morgan Junior grabbed Kathryn by the arm and tried to push her into the car, but he sank back as he saw her pull free and turn her back on her husband.
Ben slugged down the rest of his beer as he watched Kathryn’s husband slam the door of the big, expensive car and roar off down the driveway, sloshing dirty, wet mud and gravel over her expensive evening gown. She just stood there, ashen faced under the bright light spilling from the clubhouse windows.
No business of mine, he told himself. The incident was just a domestic spat, over and done with without them coming to blows. Nothing to involve the local law officer.
The promised rain had started, but she was still there, huddled miserably in her short, fur jacket, when Ben walked out into the cold, wet night. Kathryn, wearing fur? The girl he’d loved had cared for animals and would never have worn their skins.
“He’s gone, just like that. Left me here.” He knew she was crying, even as he recognized her struggle to keep the piteous tone out of her voice. “I don’t know how I’m going to get home.”
Ben hardened his heart. Her problems didn’t concern him. “Try calling a cab.”
She looked at him directly, with those wide green eyes that had made his heart skip a beat when he’d first encountered her on the dance floor earlier that evening. As well as before, years ago, when he’d wanted to drown in their mysterious depths. But he knew better now.
“I have no money.” She looked away to hide the shame that colored her cheeks and stared woodenly at the ground.
“Can’t you ask for a ride from some of your fancy friends inside?” He indicated the hotel, where the dance continued and the sound of laughter and loud banter spilled out into the chilly evening.
“I can’t. People will talk.”
“You’d rather get drenched out here than face a little gossip?”
She looked at him then. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh, I think I understand very well.” She wasn’t going to play those games with him again, ever.
Ben pulled out his mobile phone and located the number for a local taxi company, quickly ordering a cab to come to the club. He tucked a $20 bill into her cold fingers, ignoring the tiny frisson of heat that burned on his own fingers where they touched her skin.
“Cab will be here in a few minutes,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away.
Her soft voice reached him over the crunching of his boots on the wet gravel. Her words almost stopped him in his tracks. Almost.
“Are all men bastards?”
Release Date: August 25, 2014
You could say having an ancient pile in the family was a pain in the you-know-what. You could say that, and you would be right.
I am the latest and sole survivor of the Ashburnham family, aside from Uncle Billy and we don’t talk about him. The family has the dubious distinction of owning, or being owned by, an ancient pile named Alexandria House. The place is beautiful, if you like ancient crumbling stone threatening to fall down around your ears at any minute, and shrinking acres of wooded estate where the peasants poach your pheasants and don’t acknowledge the droit de signeur - the right of the Lord of the Manor to first dibs on anything - to so much as a barbecued leg.
And all this despite the fact that the estate had already chomped its way through several family fortunes over the centuries.
Fortunes belonging to several other families besides ours, that is. The house and grounds wolfed down the last of Ashburnham family fortune about three hundred years ago, spitting out bits of bone and gristle of family pride. Since then, it's been living like a vampire off the dowries brought by dewy-faced young brides whose portraits hang in the upper gallery.
I moan a great deal about my lot in life. Especially since I recently had a long, serious and very boring talk with the family accountant. I meet with old Chatterton every month, a form of masochism indulged in by many previous generations of Ashburnhams and Chattertons. But this time was different. This little chat was intended to give me a wake-up call.
According to Chatterton, it was important for me to realise my responsibilities. As the last of the family line, I couldn’t continue in my thriftless and shiftless ways. Sheesh, the nerve of the man! He looked quite pained when I voiced my opinion that if he'd been any good as an accountant he never would have let us get into this mess in the first place.
I think he decided not to chuck the job because the Chattertons have been accountants to the Ashburnhams since the year dot or maybe a bit earlier. Maybe he considers juggling our books his volunteer charity work – after all, he's probably not expecting to be paid anything from us in this lifetime.
I was moaning on about all this to my best friend and confidante, Sally Barnes, one day as we loitered in the bar of the Scraggy Duck.
“So why don’t you just sell the freaking place and be rid of the trouble?” Sally suggested. All right for her to say when the nearest thing her family has ever come to a venerable pile is a subsidized council house on Ludsey Common. Speaking of her family, common is definitely the operative word. You should see the way her dad….no, I'm rambling.
I took a deep breath, and plunged in. I had a great idea, and I wanted to run it by Sally – you'd have to take my Chanel lippy away from me before I’d ever admit it, but Sally is so grounded and down to earth. If she thinks a plan is nuts, she says so, and she’s usually right.
Fortunately, that never stopped her going along with me.
I needed her opinion right now.
So here goes. Deep breath.
“I definitely have to do something about the state of things. We can’t go on this way, what with money leaking out left, right and centre. The east wing needs a new roof and…”
Sally raised an eyebrow at me over her pint of lager and lime. It’s her way of saying get on with it. I don’t think she has any idea just how badly her eyebrows need plucking. When she raises one brow like that, it looks like a caterpillar is crawling up her face.
Where was I? Oh yes.
“I made a decision this morning, after going over the accounts one more time with Jim Chatterton. After realizing that I don’t have a pot of my own to piss in, as your dad would so charmingly put it, I've decided on a course of action.”
“Ohh, 'I've decided on a course of action.' Well, if that ain't just the lady of the manor, and all,” Sally said before honking loudly and banging her forehead on the table.
“Stop it, everyone's looking,” I hissed at her. “Anyway, I am the lady of the manor. And I'm going to get married.”
I should have waited until Sally swallowed the mouthful of lager and lime. That way she wouldn’t have sprayed it all over the vicar when I made my marriage announcement.
“You’re not serious! You? Get Married? Never!”
People really were staring now. The Reverend Morrison was edging quietly away from our table. I wasn't sure whether he wanted to avoid another lager spray or was afraid I’d ask him to conduct the service. The vicar and my dear nutty Aunt Kay, the family witch, have had a few spats in their time. I think it once involved an exorcism.
“You’re not really going to marry Larry the Lettuce, are you?” Sally's eyes were wide.
“Well he's as good as any other option around here. And he has money. It's simple: He gets me, and the Ashburnham Estate gets his money.”
Actually, this was only a variation on my ancestors' behavior. Whenever the estate was down to its last few hundred thousand, they sent out a hunting party to bag a nice rich bride and dowry. I couldn’t see any difference in my bagging Larry the Lettuce and my great great-great-great-great-grandfather, Lord Ralph, age 70, bringing home pretty little 15- year- old Alice de Clancy and her accompanying gold dowry.
“I need a wealthy husband. No, more to the point, Alexandria House needs a wealthy husband.”
Sally looked unconvinced. “But Larry? You'd sacrifice yourself to Larry? You do know what being married means, don’t you? You'd have to sleep with him! Ugh!”
I sniffed. “Larry and I have been an item for ten months now. I'm already sleeping with him.”
“Ugh! Yuck!” When Sally started the embarrassing retching noises, I grabbed my bag and headed for the door.
Of course, she followed, after paying our bar tab.
“So, come on, I paid for the drinks! Payback – what's he like? Is Lettuce limp in bed?”
“Larry Prendergast is a gentleman.” I sniffed loudly.
The cackling and gasping sounded like an asthmatic mule pounding along behind me. Sally's laugh is anything but ladylike.
“Ah! I knew it! He is limp! And you're going to marry him! When's the big day!”
I sniffed again. “We haven't discussed a date yet.”
Sally danced in front of me and peered into my face. She's myopic without her glasses, and says contact lenses make her feel like puking’
“You haven't discussed a date? And I don’t see any ring on your finger. He hasn’t asked you yet, has he?”
Dammit! Sally isn't the brightest bulb on the tree, but somehow she always guesses when I'm trying to hide something.
“Not yet, no. But he will. Tonight. He's coming over for a romantic dinner.”
“And how do you know marriage is on the menu?”
“Because I'm going to propose to him.” It's hard to speak when your teeth are gritted together.
Sally went very quiet. Then she said: “Well, in that case I hope you're not doing the cooking.”
Cíara Somers prowled among the top drawer clientele of
the exclusive Dublin nightclub, her scarlet lips pursed in a sexy pout.
When a hearty male hand slapped her bum, she clamped down her instinctive reaction to impale its owner's foot to the shiny wooden floors with her wicked four-inch stiletto heel. Instead she cracked a sultry smile and batted her dark eyelashes provocatively.
After all, she was working tonight. And you could hardly blame the poor darlings. Frankly, any man who didn't respond to her artfully designed siren's call would probably have to be dead. At least from the neck down.
The nightclub catered to very rich business and professional Dubliners – the place positively reeked of money - but she was after a specific fish tonight. It wouldn't do for a woman like her to draw too much attention to herself. If the eagle-eyed club management copped on to what she was up to, she'd be thrown out on her mini-skirted rear end.
She spotted her prey over by the bar, drinking alone and looking sorry for himself. Bingo! He looked exactly ready for the company of a beautiful, sympathetic blonde. Straightening her back to accentuate the rounded swell of her breasts, Cíara sashayed up to the bar with a hip-sway that would raise any healthy hetero male's blood pressure off the charts.
She leaned on the bar, the action pressing her cleavage into a picture that instantly mesmerized the barman and several others. Here was the tricky part – to attract only the one she wanted.
Attracting him wasn't hard at all. The tall, thin man on her right turned his head to follow the barman's gaze - and was hooked. Slowly, his eyes traveled from Cíara’s chest to linger on her mouth, after a slow detour to her toes taking in other vital areas along the way.
"Well, hello there," he growled. A wolfish smile lit up his face and he treated her to a display of crooked teeth. She suppressed a shudder. This was work, after all, but just occasionally it would be nice to work on a guy she really fancied.
Later she’d remember the old saying about being careful what you wish for in case it comes true, but tonight she was just another working girl.
So she returned the smile, twitching her lower lip into that full ruby pout that men found so irresistible. She let a wave of blonde hair fall forward over one eye as she languidly stretched out a sun-tanned hand and drew a blood-red fingernail down his shirtfront.
"Hello, yourself," she purred, and watched with satisfaction as he swallowed the bait.
Thirty minutes later, she extricated herself from her target’s roaming hands, giggled throatily and excused herself with the need to powder her nose.
"Don't be too long, baby – I’m having a hard time waiting!" he leered, and gave her an indulgent slap on her behind as she walked away. Cíara turned to wink at him and blow a scarlet-lipped kiss in his direction.
He'd already invited her back to his place for a nightcap '…and whatever else we fancy!'
* * *
"In your dreams, jerk!" she muttered as she slammed open the ladies' room door. "Men are all the same!"
"You got that right, luv," said a thirty-something redhead, eyeing her over top of a powder compact.
"Ain't it just the truth and all," said a much older bottle blonde as she pulled up the strap of her bra. "Not one to mend another, there's not."
On that note of feminine accord, Cíara stepped into a cubicle and yanked off her slinky silver dress. She jammed it into an astonishingly capacious shoulder bag and retrieved a tiny tight black Spandex mini-skirt and a bright red Spandex top with off-the-shoulder straps. Wriggling into the new outfit she hit her elbow on the door handle in the too-small space and uttered a colorful curse.
"Someone's in a bad mood," cackled the bottle blonde, who stopped battling with her errant underwear straps long enough to raise an eyebrow as the new-look Cíara stepped out of the cubicle. "Gawd, and aren't you just the regular quick-change artist?"
Ignoring the other woman, Cíara scrubbed off the red
lipstick and replaced it with pale pink. Then she whipped off the long blonde wig to reveal her own short auburn curls. She hunted around in the depths of her bag and retrieved a black wig cut in a silky pageboy style. With practiced skill she tucked her own hair under the wig and fluffed up the style, then examined the results in the mirror.
"My, My, Ms. Somers – you do look like a new woman!" She told her reflection.
The blonde gave a snort of laughter and flounced out of the powder room.
Cíara gave her appearance a quick once-over in the full-length mirror before peeking through the ladies’ room door to check that the coast was clear. Then she sauntered through the press of dancing bodies, through the club front doors and into the damp and tangy air of a Dublin evening.
One more appointment and her work would be finished for the night.
* * *
“I’m telling you, Jonno my boy, I saw Police Detective Jonathon Victor at work in New York and I still can't relate that hard man to J.V. Winters, a guy who writes bodice-rippers so full of romantic sex the ladies swoon at the mention of his name!” Gardai Inspector Bill O’Malley grinned across the pub table at his friend.
“Bodice rippers? Romantic sex? I’m deeply chagrined." Winters grinned back over a thick-headed pint of something dark and rich.
“And it's great you're spending some time over here. Research, huh? Is this for a book or for a case?”
“Hey, the next book. It’s a bit of a departure from what I’ve been doing, more suspense than romance. The department agreed to give me a year off - without pay, of course. So I’m a free man.”
“How exactly did you finagle that? I know you were wounded, but if I tried to get a year off for anything other than maybe total paralysis from the neck down, the Brass would have me out directing traffic – once they'd finished laughing, mind you.”
“Yeah, well, mine is the same – the bullet I took in the leg was just a flesh wound and not serious enough for the captain to be sympathetic to the tune of a year off. So I threatened to leak to the newspapers that J. V. Winters was actually a working cop. What really clinched it was when I said I’d tell which precinct house I worked out of – and he had this vision of hundreds of women clogging the parking lot, waiting for autographs!”
“By God, I’d love to have seen his face! You’re a mad bastard, Jonathon!”
“Yeah, so I’ve been told. What about you, Bill? You worked with us for a year in New York City and I always expected you to come back permanently.” Winters eyed the other man over his glass.
“Myself, I’d move in two minutes. But when Sórcha got pregnant we wanted the baby born here, near her mother and all. Then, well, somehow it just got harder and harder to think of leaving. And Ireland’s not like it used to be – people are moving in here instead of all the young ones emigrating to find work.“
“Things have certainly changed,” Winters agreed, surveying the gleaming, newly refurbished pub crowded with business types chattering on mobile phones while lunching.
“Not always for the best, either. Money brings its own problems,” Bill commented glumly.
“Ah,” Winters pounced softly. “Do I detect that perhaps there’s a reason why a tight bastard like yourself offered to buy lunch?”
Bill grinned. “Always the cop, eh? Suspicious beggar, that’s what you are. But….”
“Go on, I’m listening. But I warn you, this sabbatical is to write the book I want to write – not to chase around these green and wet fields looking for stolen sheep!”
“Don’t condescend. We’re talking stolen jewelry. Lots of stolen jewelry. Whoever our thief is, he’s got an eye for the pricey stuff. Leaves odd trinkets worth only a few hundred pounds behind, takes stuff worth in the tens of thousands – or hundreds of thousands. Three nights ago, he walked out of a big Georgian house in Dublin with a necklace and earrings that in themselves were worth a quarter of a million, but they have a history which makes them worth twice that to a collector.” Bill drained his beer and began to make wet, interlocking rings on the table with his glass.
“What have you got so far?” Winters' interest was piqued despite himself.
“Damn all, and that’s the truth. No fingerprints, no sightings, the guy – or girl – does their research well, because the robberies all occur when the house is empty. What's puzzling is they also know where the stuff is and how to get to it. Even if it’s in a wall safe. We're questioning all outside staff, caterers, etc., that the victims have used, but we've not found a link so far.”
“Must be frustrating,” Winters sympathized. “But why did you say guy or girl? Is there anything to indicate that it’s a woman?”
“Nah, not really. Just he's able to squeeze in through narrow openings such as a bathroom window, so it must be someone fairly slightly built. The bloody Press got hold of the story and they’ve nicknamed him the “Diamond Darling” because he seems to have a special liking for diamonds. Now he’s a fecking romantic hero!”
Winters grinned. "Them's the breaks. Good luck with it, Bill. I’m off back to Waterford. My agent's buying me dinner at a classy hotel then tucking me up with my laptop computer in a cozy little cottage before she flies back across the Atlantic."
Bill raised an eyebrow. "Isn't your agent the same woman who….."
"Yes, but that was a long time ago and we're purely business now. At the moment, I'm footloose, fancy-free and ready to devote myself to 100,000 words of fiction."
“Yeah, right, I know you, Jonathon. A few weeks out in the boonies down in County Waterford and you'll be begging me to let you help with the Diamond Darling,” Bill challenged.
“If I want to know more, I’ll buy the newspapers,” Winters retorted. “Remember me to Sórcha. I’ll see you, her and the two babes on Wednesday before the libraries conference starts. Though God alone knows how they persuaded me to speak at this!”
“Come on, man, you know you love the adoration,” Bill replied, disappointed that he hadn’t been able to recruit Winters in the hunt for the jewel thief. “Just remember when you’re out at those posh dinners and cocktail do's, keep an ear to the ground for anything about our jewelry loving friend!”
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The woman at the other end was painstakingly patient. “I’ve told you already, Ms Findlay, that he’s on his way. He should be there in three minutes. He’s delayed in traffic – these things happen.”
“Well, they shouldn’t….oh, I think he’s here now. A black tuxedo, you said?”
“Yes, you purchased our formal special.” There was no mistaking the relief in the other woman’s voice as she ended the conversation.
Anna pushed the phone back into her tiny evening bag as she watched the doorman open the door of a delicious black luxury SUV. Her jaw fell open as she saw the driver who unfolded himself from the vehicle and stood for a moment gazing up at the building. If ever a man was born to wear a tux, this was the one! My god, she could see why he made money at an escort agency – all he’d have to do is sit and look gorgeous all evening and who could wish for anything more? Especially when the deal had a No Sex Clause, Anna grimaced to herself. What on earth had she gotten herself into?
The doorman smiled respectfully at the newcomer and the two men exchanged greetings. Anna tapped her expensively sandaled toe against the marble floor and let out an exasperated sigh. The man was already four minutes late for their date, and he was casually chatting to the doorman! This isn’t going to work, she told herself. The words had become a mantra over the past two weeks, ever since her publisher’s marketing department had persuaded her to attend her high school reunion.
Yes, she’d known it wasn’t going to work, and a shiver of foreboding went up her spine as the black-haired hunk glanced at her through the double glass doors. Their eyes locked for a moment, and something sweet and sexy sang in the air.
This definitely isn’t going to work, Anna repeated again to herself. The last thing she needed was to react to her date on a physical level. She’d told the agency she wanted a Sex God, believing she was immune to all that crazy hormone stuff that afflicted other women, thank you very much.
Now she was getting shivers looking at a total stranger who wasn’t even polite enough to arrive on time. What was she thinking? Anna straightened her shoulders and drew herself up to her full five feet nine inches before striding out to the sidewalk, where she found herself standing by, ignored, as the Sex God and the doorman stood and chatted about the latest baseball scores. This was just too much! Fuming, Anna coughed loudly to attract their attention. The green gaze of the Sex God landed on her like a warm hand. Anna shivered.
Donald, the doorman, smiled benignly at her. “Good evening, Miss Findlay…what can I do for you?”
“You could open the car door, for one thing, and let me get in out of the cold,” she said, knowing she was being rude but then, that’s what doormen were paid for. Looking over at the Sex God, she said coldly: “You’re already late and making us later while you stand here chatting on my time. Do you mind if we get moving?”
She enjoyed the look of shock on his face. Obviously the Sex God - whom she really must start calling by his proper name, Bob Goulding – wasn’t used to assertive women. No doubt he was used to getting away with all sorts of nonsense while women drooled over his good looks. Well, not this woman. Anna Findlay was finished with being a doormat for good looking men, and this one was about to feel the sharp edge of her tongue if he didn’t hop to it and get on with his duty.
Oops, now there was a double entendre if ever there was one. A blush rose up Anna’s cheeks, making her even more irritated. Her blood pressure soared even higher when he replied with a double entendre of his own.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am – just what is it you’d like me to do?” And that lazy smile and toffee-soft Western drawl suggested women often wanted him to do all sorts of things – and that sometimes he willingly complied. Anna ground her teeth.
“I want you to get into the car and get to work.”
That startled him, Anna noted with satisfaction, although the strange look that Donnie the doorman gave her was a little disconcerting. Well, to hell with them! But she ground her teeth even more when Donnie looked over to the other man and waited for his nod before he opened the passenger door for Anna to get in. Men!
The Sex God climbed in beside her, bringing with him a scent of fresh, clean male and something else – could it be the smell of the great outdoors? Uhmm, whatever it was, it was very distracting to female hormones. Maybe she’d suggest to her friend, perfume designer Sue Lennox, that she try to distil that Great Outdoors scent as an aftershave for men. If the effect it was having on Anna was anything to go by, the perfume would be a best-seller!
“So, exactly what work do you want me to do?” he asked as he settled himself in beside her.
“Didn’t the agency tell you? I understood it was all arranged – I bought the full package.”
Was he blushing? Anna was sure there was a flush over his cheekbones even in the dim light of the luxury vehicle’s interior. He seemed to be avoiding her eyes, but there was something suspiciously like a smile tweaking the strong line of his lips.
His almost-smile irritated Anna beyond endurance. “Don’t tell me they’ve sent me a rank beginner!” she snapped, rolling her eyes. “Mrs Rogers assured me you were very experienced in this sort of thing.”
Her companion went into a paroxysm of coughing. Great, a sick one as well. Wonderful. This evening was going down the toilet before it even started. He seemed to get over his bout of coughing, and then asked in a strangled sounding voice: “Just what did you expect from the ‘full package’?”
Anna sighed. Yes, she’d told Alexandra Peterson, her contact at the
“Really, I don’t know what’s going on here. Am I going to have to take you by the hand and show you everything I want? For starters, sit a little closer – I want you to be very, very attentive.”
Another bout of coughing. “Attentive? Okay, right. I can do attentive. And I assure you, I’m very, very experienced, all right? It’s just that…well, this is a little unusual…” But he scooted across the seat towards her and slipped his arm around her shoulders. “Is this close enough?” he murmured, his breath warm on her neck.
Suddenly it was very, very warm inside the car and Anna had to fight a desire to lean into the broad chest of her companion, her eyes drooping shut. She’d like to fall asleep against his strength…hell, no, sleep was not what her hormones had in mind! They were zinging around her body, making her limbs heavy and her skin super sensitive to the sensual touch of the silk wool mix of his tuxedo jacket as it slid against her bare shoulders. Maybe she should have worn a less revealing evening dress…… and then images of wearing nothing at all, skin on skin with her escort, flashed and burned through her mind and Anna sat up suddenly as straight as a Victorian dowager.
“Something wrong?” Her companion asked, letting his arm slide from her suddenly rigid shoulders, his hand sliding down her bare arm and sending all sorts of sparks flying across her skin.
“No, not at all – just save the attentive stuff until we get there! You can’t drive if you let your hands wander.”
“Jeez, would you ever make up your mind? Just where, might I ask, is ‘there’, anyway?”
“Didn’t you read the information from the agency? They said they’d make sure you got everything you needed…”
“Nope, I didn’t get anything from the agency.”
Anna swore under her breath nastily enough for Mrs Rogers’ ears to be burning, although Anna had no doubt that Mrs Rogers was probably home someplace away from the agency, enjoying a casual supper and a glass of wine in front of the television. While she, Anna, was stuck in a luxury SUV with this gorgeous brainless hunk who’d obviously not been briefed at all by the aforesaid Mrs. Rogers. Anna ground her teeth some more, and her companion had the good sense to slide a few inches further away from her on the leather seat.
“In light of the fact that I don’t have a clue what’s going on, perhaps you’d be kind enough to give me the potted version of what’s happening, and how I’m supposed to react?”
Anna took a deep breath to calm herself. Remember what Alonso, her personal trainer, said: breathe deeply, in, out, let all your muscles relax slowly, breath in, breath out….omigod, just how did I get myself into this mess? I’m going to wring Alex’s miserable neck…
She took another deep breath, as Alonso had taught her, breathing out to rid her mind of all the anger and frustrations and tension. Maybe she could breathe her way out of this mess. In…breathe out… It didn’t work, so she had to speak anyway. “Okay, we’re going to my high school reunion.” If he laughs, I’ll not be responsible for my actions. And they’ll be violent…
But her companion remained quiet, obviously listening, and she tried another deep breath. That didn’t work, either. “At that reunion, you will be my very attentive escort – you’ll listen to my every word, laugh at my jokes, bring me drinks, get me a seat – whatever it takes to make everyone believe you’re madly in….er, infatuated with me.” She’d almost said ‘…in love with me’ which would have been really silly for someone who didn’t recognise being in love as anything more than a serious disorder of the hormones.
“I guess I can do that,” the man drawled. “And is there anything in particular that I need to remember?”
“Well, I’ll be calling you Bob, and that’s how I’ll introduce you, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Bob? No, okay, I guess I can remember that.”
Damn the man! Was he being sarcastic? Had he picked up on her opinion of his lack of brainpower? Well, she wasn’t going to worry about that – she was paying him well enough for him not to have to worry about anything except being her perfect escort.
“Uhmm, what should I call you?”
“Just call me Anna, and we’ll be fine. Oh, and people will mention my book – just nod and look impressed, okay? Don’t try to explain anything to anyone.” Anna paused, wondering if she needed to fill him in on the type of questions and comments people might make about her book…then decided against it. Why make things even more complicated? “There are just two other things.”
“One is that I’ve booked a suite for the night at the hotel near the school…just for the way it looks, you know,” Anna swallowed hard past her embarrassment, glad that it had got darker outside and she was sure he wouldn’t be able to see her flaming cheeks. “But you’ll know all about that, of course.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he drawled. “I can assure you I’m getting the picture.”
“And, er, the other thing…I’m really nervous about this reunion.”
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The warm summer evening was thickening into night, and at the newly opened
During the day the resort had been brimming with families and excited young children, but at night there was a different crowd, teenagers with a sprinkling of older folk. Many were coming from the country'n'western concert at the main hall and wore bright costumes, the English interpretation of American cowboy attire.
A striking blonde woman stood out from the rest. Her short red dress and strappy high-heeled sandals emphasized her leggy good looks, and few men in the crowd passed her by without a second glance. Her looks elicited some malicious comments from the women, which made their men folk laugh even as they indulged in brief fantasies of what they imagined this woman could offer.
None more so than the handsome man who lounged against a gatepost, his eyes taking in every line of the woman as she approached him.
"Waiting for someone, honey?" She drawled her practiced pick-up line. She was a working girl and even though the evening had been a good time in her time off, she wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to make a few pounds – especially not with a hunk like this. And he had that needy look she knew only too well………
"I think I've been waiting for you, love – probably most of my life," he replied, his tone matching her lazy drawl.
"Well, then, I guess we're two lucky people." She smiled up at him as she slipped her arm through his and they strolled together through the gates. As they reached the beach down the flower-bordered path of a small park, she slipped out of her spike-heeled shoes so that she could walk more easily on the sand. It was a calculatedly sexy move, affording the man a good look at her shapely thighs as she balanced herself against him to slip off first one shoe, then the other. He laughed good-naturedly as he steadied her, and took her elbow to guide her towards the sheltering privacy of some rocks. The only sounds were the muttering rhythm of the
In the shadows, sure they were alone, he dropped tiny kisses on her hair and the tip of her nose, and she responded happily pressing herself against him. The strap of her red dress slipped from her shoulder and he kissed the space it left, his lips moving down her skin until he captured her breast in his mouth.
She groaned softly in her throat, her busy fingers opening the buttons of his soft white shirt so that her lips could graze his chest. So far she hadn't mentioned business, but this one was attractive enough to interest her anyway. She figured he was probably experienced enough to know what she was about so she gave herself up to the pleasure of his kisses.
When his hands began to wander over her lush body, she matched him move for move, finally pulling him down onto the cooling sand beside her and whispering in his ear: "Shall I take you high, baby?"
"Oh, I think you'll take me high, all right, I think the ultimate high…" His voice was thick, his mouth against her neck as she threw back her head and laughed in delight.
But the laughter was short-lived. For the same bright moonbeams that lit her eyes to gold also flashed silver on the terrible blade that arced down towards her throat.
"The ultimate high," he moaned against her threshing body.
A cry was stifled in her throat as the dead woman began to move. Her empty eyes opened. Her dead mouth widened in a silent scream as the white fingers began to claw at the hem of Ellie's coat, pulling her down, down, into a cold embrace.
Terrified, she turned and ran from the nightmare figure until she was caught by strong familiar arms…...
Ellie Fitzpatrick woke from the dream, her heart pounding in fear and yet with desire flooding hotly through her veins. Her dream rescuer had been Liam Reilly. Cursing demons she couldn't vanquish, she climbed out of bed and pulled on a soft silk robe. Her face was pale in the bathroom mirror, dark shadows under her eyes testament to the early hour. But she knew she wouldn't sleep now, not when the faces of all the dead women would drift through her dreams. She wondered if other police officers ever got accustomed to the sight of the murdered dead. She knew she never would.
This was her family's cottage, perched on the cliffs near
There he was again, behind her closed lids, as surely as if he'd materialized from her dream. Liam Reilly. His presence haunted her waking days as surely as the nightmares haunted her nights. They were inextricably linked, opposite sides of the coin of her life.
Ellie's lips curled in an ironic smile. Just last night Brad Scott, the man she'd been seeing for the past few months, had asked her to marry him. Brad had been there for her all through these difficult months, but she couldn’t marry him, because the man who'd abandoned her still infected her blood like some incurable virus. She raised her head to the star sprinkled night and her treacherous body, reveling in memories of Reilly, insisted there was only one solution. In his arms she was safe; she was alive as she had never been since they had parted. But that chapter of her life, with its accompanying betrayal and humiliation, was over and should be put to rest.
In a tiny corner of her mind, fear unfurled and blossomed with memories that she thought had been shut away forever. Her old life had cost her dearly, but even though she called herself all kinds of a fool, she knew she must seize this one opportunity to reclaim it.
# # #
She dozed, wrapped in blankets on the white wicker chaise longue on her terrace, with the soothing sound of the calming ocean a lullaby. Three hours later she woke with her feet tingling and numb. The scruffy white dog, a stray Ellie often fed, had found her and fallen asleep across her legs, cutting off the circulation.
"You had a restless night, too?" she asked the sleepy dog. Tuesday, named for the day of the week he'd entered her life, opened one raisin black eye as Ellie extricated her feet from under him. He stretched a little, yawned, and returned to his doggie dreams.
"Lazy beast," Ellie muttered, stretching stiff limbs and yawning. "Coffee and a shower, that's what I need." The white dog opened one eye again. Ellie grinned. "Ridiculous, talking to a dumb animal. It's not as if you can understand me," she told him, and he wagged his tail knowingly before curling into an even tighter ball and going back to sleep.
Tuesday had adopted Ellie a few months earlier, and she enjoyed his quiet company. Still, the innocuous beast had been the cause of the first and only serious row she'd ever had with Brad. He'd called round unexpectedly at the glowing end of an unusually warm winter day and Tuesday, surprised by the visitor while asleep in a patch of sunlit terrace, had growled menacingly. Brad lashed out at the dog, catching him a hard kick on his skinny hindquarters, and pausing only for a reproachful look at Ellie, Tuesday had fled,
Shocked at Brad's violent outburst, Ellie had rounded angrily on him and in the row that followed he accused her of preferring the dog's company over his because she was afraid to be with a 'flesh and blood male'.
Furious at his accusations – especially since she suspected they contained a nugget of truth - Ellie had avoided Brad for a week. Then he'd arrived on her doorstep, a lopsided grin on his boyishly handsome face, holding out a bag of CrossRoads Café croissants as a peace offering. The incident had been almost forgotten. The dog had come back, too, seeming to need Ellie's company as well as the scraps she left for him, but he still made sure to stay well out of the way when Brad was nearby.
The doorbell interrupted her thoughts as she finished her shower. Resentful that her peaceful morning had been disturbed, she wrapped a towel around her dripping hair and quickly pulled on pants and a cotton sweater as the bell pealed again insistently. Her irritation evaporated once she opened the door to find Brad on her doorstep, a huge bunch of bright flowers cradled in one arm, a white cardboard bakery box in his other hand.
"Good morning," he grinned, pleased to see her struggling to figure out what was going on. "You really can't guess, can you?" he said, brushing past her into the small kitchen, shrinking it even more with his tall presence.
"We - ell, it's not my birthday - and it's not yours, because I remember we picnicked on the beach in the freezing cold last February to celebrate yours. It's not a solstice, Christmas, or Easter - not Labor Day or American Thanksgiving ...Okay, I give up."
"It's the 12-hour anniversary of my proposal to you!" Brad declared triumphantly, presenting her with the bouquet while leaning over to pop the box down on the kitchen counter. He gathered Ellie into his arms, awkwardly because of the flowers in her arms and the floppy towel on her head, and captured her lips in a sizzling kiss. As his mouth became more demanding, harder on hers, Ellie backed off, holding the flowers in front of her and muttering about finding vases.
"It's really sweet of you, Brad, but I'm still half-asleep..."
"Well, I could take you back to bed..."
"Not a morning person, are we?" he asked, smiling to take the edge of the words. If ever she fell in love with Brad, Ellie thought right then, it would be because of his engaging smile. But she wasn't going to tell him about her nightmare or how she had been dozing out on the terrace rather than in her own bed.
"Wherever did you find these beautiful flowers at this time in the morning?" Ellie asked.
Brad wriggled his eyebrows and leered at her comically. "I 'ave my vays. Actually, there's a 24 hour petrol station and convenience store south of
"What harm is he doing? I like his company, and he cleans up a few leftovers," Ellie said, quelling a flash of temper.
"He's a stray, and he's taking you for a sucker, love. Before you know where you are you'll be landed with the mutt, a million fleas, and vet's bills you know you can't afford. He'll move in on you and then you'll find out all the nasty little habits that made his previous owner have the good sense to dump him."
"Just leave it, Brad," Ellie said tightly. Even though she recognized he was probably right, she couldn't help feeling a flare of protectiveness towards the dog.
He shrugged and tapped the bakery box on the kitchen counter. "When are you going to join the 21st century and get a microwave, Ellie? You don't even have an answering machine; your computer's out of the
"It suits me just fine," Ellie retorted, stung at his criticism.
Geez, Ellie! A handsome man arrives on your doorstep, bearing flowers and the most heavenly croissants available in
Lovers. Her mind was filled with deeply sensual images of Liam Reilly. They were as sharp and clear as if they'd occurred that night, and her body tingled with remembered passion. She buried her face in the flowers, hoping that Brad hadn't seen and misinterpreted the naked desire she was sure must be evident on her face.
At that instant Brad was distracted by the shrilling of his cell phone He answered it, rolling his eyes in exasperation. "Darn it, Ellie - the boss is sending me a fax I need to look at right now. Can you warm up the croissants in a low oven - I'll be back in about 30 minutes?" Then he was gone, back to his own cottage next door along the cliff. Ellie glanced at the clock above the stove - twenty minutes past seven. What on earth was he thinking? She stretched, yawned, and enjoyed the feeling of well being that his visit had brought. But what are you going to do about his proposal? She clenched her teeth, the good feeling evaporating rapidly.
On impulse, she laid the small kitchen table for two with a clean yellow cloth, green and yellow place mats and green linen napkins, adding the delicate primrose yellow china crockery she'd brought with her from her other life. She finished by adding some white and yellow tulips from the bouquet Brad had brought, then stood back to admire her handiwork. It was the least she could do after Brad had gone to so much trouble.
She was getting restless when half an hour later Brad called to explain that he'd been further delayed, and it would likely be another hour before he could join her.
"Don't eat all the croissants," he warned.
With time on her hands, breakfast alone had little appeal. Outside her window the sparkling morning called. Until a few months ago, she had jogged every day, but since being suspended from duty as a detective with the North West Special Crimes Task Force six months ago, she'd let her exercise regime dwindle to a gentle walk on the beach.
Yesterday her boss, Chief Superintendent Harris, had called to instruct her to return to work – it seemed the investigation into accusations that she'd accepted bribes from a gangster had failed to find any proof. Harris wanted her back in harness. Ellie's heart beat in excitement. If she was to survive a foray into her life BCB - 'Before Crash and Burn', which is how she thought of the crisis that led to her suspension - then she'd better limber up.
She was mentally plotting her route as she dragged on jogging suit and trainers. Along the laneway to the main road, back down and along the beach to the rocks. About two miles, a good start for someone as out of shape as I am, she thought, pausing by her front door to attach a key to the chain around her neck. Then she stepped out onto the terrace and started a few stretching exercises.
Ellie jogged slowly along the laneway, glad it was still early morning and there was no one about. Tuesday suddenly appeared and jogged alongside her, his tongue lolling slightly but showing little effect from his exertions. Unlike Ellie herself, who soon had to stop, bending at the waist to ease the stitch in her side. She glared resentfully at the mutt. The dog sat alongside her, fixing her with his black raisin eyes, and she was sure he was laughing.
"Look, I used to be good at this!" she declared, sticking her tongue out at Tuesday before resuming her run, this time even more slowly. She paced herself with intermittent bouts of running and walking until she established a rhythm, jogging along the hard, wet sand at the water's edge and enjoying the morning solitude with the dog trotting at her heels. Even the gaudily colorful towers of the new Funland Family Resort, visible over the cliff edge, failed to dampen her mood.
As they neared the rocks, Tuesday began to growl, and the ruff of scruffy white fur around his neck stood up. "Is there somebody there, boy?" Ellie whispered, looking around the seemingly deserted stretch of copper-hued sand. Tuesday was used to strangers on the beach and usually treated them with either canine contempt or a joyous greeting, which in the case of small children sometimes quite literally bowled them over.
This growling, belly-to-the-ground stalking was strange behavior, and shivers ran down Ellie's spine while the sweat dampened hair on the small of her neck prickled. Then Tuesday took off into the rocks, growling low in his throat as he slipped and slithered over the tide-wet shale. Abruptly he stopped and issued a single bark. The loud, staccato sound startled Ellie. When it was repeated, she began to move reluctantly towards the spot where the dog had disappeared behind tall rounded boulders. As she approached she feared she already knew what he had found, and she shivered.
But it was much, much worse than she'd imagined.
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The woman in the sexy little red convertible looked perky from behind. Her glossy long hair was pulled up in a careless pony tail and swayed from side like a cobra charmed by an Indian flute as she bopped to the music from the car radio.
Even at a car's length away the driver behind her thought this was the sort of hair a man could run his fingers through and grasp playfully….He wished now he was piloting his own expensive roadster rather than the sedate brown sedan he'd rented especially for this trip. His own car was the sort that that would impress the kind of girl who drove a bright red convertible with the top down on a windy spring day.
He imagined himself overtaking her, seeing her look over at him, her eyes widening in admiration as she took in his expensive ride and wealthy, groomed good looks.
Then she'd remember him and smile…
He gunned the accelerator and with a disdainful purr the rental spurted forward, pulling alongside her. He glanced over, hoping to catch her eye. But she stared straight ahead, singing along to some mindless muzak and oblivious to his look of longing.
He didn't matter to her. She didn't remember. She didn't smile.
Irritated now, he jabbed the accelerator and zoomed past her. He knew that soon they'd meet again.
Then he'd refresh her memory.
Maggie Kendall was just leaving Fried Heaven, two cups of the café’s delicious coffee balanced in her hands, when a tall, dark haired stranger pushed open the door so suddenly that it caught her and hot coffee sloshed wetly down the front of her white silk shirt.
“I am so sorry!” His handsome face flushed with embarrassment as he grabbed a wad of paper napkins from a dispenser on the nearest table and began to mop at the spill. His touch on her upper breasts was electric – it sizzled all the way down to her toes, leaving her breathless. Brushing his hands away, she snapped: “It's okay, really, I'm fine. My office is just across the road and I can clean up there.”
The man snatched back his hand as he realised the inappropriate intimacy of his touch. Blushing, he jammed the offending hands into his suit pants pockets. “I … at least let me pay for your dry cleaning,” he stammered, but Maggie was already half way out the door.
“It's nothing, don’t worry about it,” she muttered, avoiding his gaze. A second later she was gone.
Josh Tyler blinked, staring after her as the door slammed behind her. He'd been intent on cleaning up the spilled coffee mess and had acted without thinking. Now his fingers telegraphed the sensation of the warm soft femininity and his embarrassment deepened. He hadn't felt this awkward since high school.
“Don't pay any attention to her,” a plump teenager behind the counter said. “That's Maggie Kendall, she's from the city.” She made the words sound like an accusation rather than a statement and Tyler bit back a smile.
“Now, Alicia, Ms. Kendall's a nice enough woman and she's worked wonders with the Gazette since she bought out old Dan Warrington.” An older woman sitting by the electronic till said in a warning voice.
“Yes, but she's strange. People say she sees things … like, a second sight.”
“Alicia! That's enough. Now serve the gentleman and then get back into the kitchen and help Sam with the cleanup.”
Tyler wanted to ask more questions but was pretty sure the eagle eyed cashier would slap him down, so he ordered coffee and a Danish to go, paid and left the store.
Outside on the broad sidewalk his eye was caught by the large sign on one of the offices across the road: The Woeful Creek Gazette. Maggie Kendall was an attractive woman, even if maybe a bit highly strung. But he'd no wish to get close to any member of the Press – and certainly not to someone with a reputation for 'seeing things'.
Reporters and psychics were, in his experience, about equal in the charlatan stakes.
“There was someone in here looking for you, Maggie,” Colleen McKie, Maggie's secretary and sometimes reporter, told her as she entered the offices of the Woeful Creek Gazette. “City type, nearly killed herself on that patch of ice outside in her high heels.”
Maggie's sleep had been disturbed by dark dreams the night before, and at Colleen's words a prickle of unease skittered along her spine. “Did she leave a name?”
“Nope, and I didn't ask. Told her you'd be in the office by nine and she should try you then. Probably wanting to sell you something,” Colleen grinned, taking the cardboard cup of Fried Heaven coffee that Maggie handed to her.
Her grin faded as she saw the damp brown stain across Maggie's shirtfront. “Whatever happened to you? Did you slip, too? I'll throw some salt on that ice, it's obviously dangerous.”
Maggie flushed. “Oh, no, some guy pushed the door open a bit sharpish as I was leaving the café – knocked my coffee all over me.”
“You're blushing, Maggie Kendall! Was he good looking, then…?”
Maggie was saved from answering by the sudden ringing of the telephone. “I'm off to change this shirt,” she muttered.
“Woeful Creek Gazette, Colleen McKie speaking.”
“Hi, there, Colleen, it's Jeb Carraway.” Maggie could hear the booming voice ten feet away, and began to make frantic signs to Colleen that she was out.
“Hello there, Jeb. What can we do for you today?” Colleen made a cross-eyed grimace at Maggie. “Oh, you want to add some details to your report of the men's golfing dinner? Uhmm, I have a feeling Maggie has already put that on a page. I know she wanted to be absolutely sure your piece was included this week – she's not here right now; if there's still time I'll get back to you.”
Maggie stepped into her own office, welcoming a moment alone with her thoughts as she changed into a plain white scoop necked cotton t-shirt. Yes, even over the sting of hot coffee, she'd noticed that the guy was good looking. And his touch, however inadvertent, had sent sparks of knowing all the way to her brain – and other parts.
“You've been too long without a man in your life, Maggie Kendall,” she whispered to herself.
In the outer office she could hear Colleen finishing the phone call with a little flirtatious banter, and sighed. Had she ever enjoyed such light hearted banter? If she had, it was a dim and distant memory now. There was no chance that she'd ever have a man in her life, nor ever let anyone get close to her. It was too dangerous…
She sank into the old leather desk chair, relieved that Colleen had, with her usual diplomacy, saved her from a long and trivial discussion with Jeb. He'd been made redundant when the local paper mill closed and now thought journalism was an exciting new career. He was also long winded, pedantic, and terrified of making a mistake. His report on the golf club dinner would have filled an entire page if Maggie hadn't taken the time to tactfully edit it down to four paragraphs.
“You owe me, Maggie,” Colleen called from the other room. “I just slayed the first dragon of the day.”
“Slaying dragons is part of your job description,” Maggie hollered back, picking up the pile of mail Colleen had left on her desk. It was grand to start the day looking forward to your work. I was so lucky to find Woeful Creek, and even luckier to find this little newspaper up for sale, she thought. After the terrible turmoil of the last few years, her life was finally under control and sailing calm waters.
The little cow-bells over the office's front door tinkled, indicating that a customer had come into the office. Maggie, engrossed in sorting the mail and co-ordinating the office diary, ignored the murmur of voices in the outer office.
Between sips of coffee, she riffled through the selection of bills, letters to the editor, press releases, invitations, and notices of meetings that were the usual mail offering for any small town newspaper editor: All the stuff that made rural life flow in its steady, unpressured way.
Her breath caught in her throat as she reached the bottom of the stack, snatching her hand away as if a snake rather than an innocuous looking pink envelope lay there, the word ‘Personal’ messily printed in red crayon above her name. It was the kind of envelope Colleen wouldn’t open — the kind of envelope that might contain a personal greeting card or party invitation. Maggie swallowed hard to stem the panic that was already swelling in her chest.
STOP IT, she ordered herself. STOP IT! It's over, finished. I paid a high price, but it's over and I won’t look back….
You’ll see – it’s probably an invitation to the Historical Society’s annual tea, or some such, she told herself, determinedly picking up the envelope again and sliding her thumb nail under the flap. A cheap party invitation with a cartoon clown fluttered out. Scrawled in multi-coloured crayoned letters were the words:
So Happy to Have Found You! Watch Out For A Gift From Me!
Maggie shivered, hugging her arms around herself to try to ward off the sudden cold. But the chill was inside her heart, not the fault of the ancient radiator beside her desk. She'd known this day would come. That he would find her was as inevitable as snow arriving in the Canadian deep winter.
Now that it had finally happened, a numbed calm settled over her like a winter blanket of snow. It was almost a relief that the axe had finally fallen on her life.
The only question in her mind was what she would do now?
Would she run – or would she kill him?
Barbaric as it might sound, the thought of ending a monster's life gave Maggie a warm feeling of being in control. Empowered.
This time she wouldn’t back down, she promised herself. She'd hold onto everything that had become so dear to her – this funny little rural town and the newspaper that served it, the house by the lake, the warm people who'd welcomed her as a stranger and become her friends.
But in the pit of her stomach she recognised the vow for the bravado it was. There was no avoiding her fate except to keep running. Her stomach clenched. He was promising her a gift.
Somebody was going to die.
Maggie squashed down her fear and shuffled that damning envelope underneath the other papers as her secretary knocked on the office door. “There's someone here to see you, Maggie,” Colleen said, her short strawberry blonde curls bobbing as she peered through the door at her boss. “She doesn't have an appointment, but says she has to see you.”
“Did she give a name…?” the question was interrupted by the ringing of the front office phone. “Send her in, then, Colleen, and answer that – it might be a major advertiser.”
Colleen grinned at their shared joke and moments later the office door opened again to admit the visitor. Maggie looked up, an automatic welcoming smile dying on her lips as she recognized the woman who entered. A malevolent ghost from her buried past, dressed all in Pravda. The room momentarily blurred and faded around her as her small office filled with her visitor's expensive perfume.
She'd been wrong. Horribly wrong. Empowerment was short lived.
“You're very hard to find, Laura Rose Andrews – or should I call you, Maggie Kendall?” The tall, stylishly dressed young woman calmly settled uninvited into the straight backed chair facing Maggie's desk. She placed her laptop case on the floor and straightened an imaginary wrinkle in her business-like blue skirt, all the while looking as innocent as a lamb.
“What the hell are you doing here, Susan?” Maggie demanded. The words had to fight their way through the constriction in her throat.
“I'd like to be able to say I'm just looking up an old friend, but we were hardly that, were we?”
Maggie shook her head, not trusting herself to speak. If Susan noticed that Maggie's face had gone whiter than her cotton shirt, she didn’t comment. Instead, she leaned forward; the sharply moulded planes of her face alight with a mean excitement.
“Quite a come-down, eh?” Susan cast a disparaging glance around the room. “How on earth did you wind up on this funky little small town rag, when you were such a high flier? I guess that's what comes of lying and screwing so many vulnerable people around…”
Looking around her, seeing for the first time the cluttered, old-fashioned office furnishings as it must look through the eyes of a top flight national Press reporter, Maggie wanted to close her eyes and wish her uninvited guest away. Anger flared as an idea crossed her mind.
“Did you send this?” she demanded, tossing the note from the pink envelope across the desk to land by Susan's hand. The other woman glanced at it dismissively.
“God, no. I don’t think many of us would be throwing a party for you, Maggie, uh, Laura. It's reporters like you who bring shame on the rest of us. You're an embarrassment to your profession.”
Maggie stood but kept the broad expanse of her scarred and battered oak desk between her and the other woman.
“If that's what you've come to say, you've said it. Now leave.” The words scratched their way from her throat.
“Whoa, not so fast. I'm doing a piece on 'Whatever happened to…?' And you were such a little celebrity for a while; you'd make a perfect addition to my rogues' gallery.”
The anger Maggie had been holding in check suddenly sizzled like an electrical short in her brain. She knew her former colleagues held her in contempt, but did they really hate her enough to want to humiliate her all over again? Swallowing the rage and shame that threatened to choke her, Maggie retorted: “Never in a million years!”
Susan laughed, a menacing sound devoid of humor. “You don’t have much choice, really, do you? You can co-operate and maybe give the readership another abject apology, or I can write about how you're still spreading your poison, only this time in the motherhood and apple pie context of a small town newspaper!”
“Why are you doing this? You know I meant no harm…”
“Yeah, you said all that…” Susan stood suddenly, leaning across the cluttered surface of the desktop so that her face was inches from Maggie's. “You made us all look like fools and charlatans, Maggie/Laura. Your lies rubbed off on the rest of us. If trotting you out for another drubbing helps show the public that the rest of us still have our integrity intact, then so be it!”
Susan moved towards the door and Maggie followed her, panic nipping at her heels.
“You'd better not do this or you’ll be sorry!” she shouted, anger turning to fear.
Susan was at the main office door now. Maggie reached out and grabbed her arm, willing to beg – and then she felt it. That feeling that she'd tried so hard for so long to suppress. The everyday working office swam before her as if she was seeing it under water, and the present was fading fast. It took all her inner strength to refuse to let the vision take over. Barely knowing what she was doing, she stepped back to steady herself against the doorjamb of her office and spoke quietly in a voice she didn’t even recognize as her own.
“You'd better be careful, Susan. What you're doing is dangerous.”
Susan turned, smiled cruelly and flipped a rude finger at Maggie before striding away.
Too late, Maggie became aware that Colleen was staring at her with horror on her face. But Colleen didn't look anywhere near as shocked as the customer who was with her. This little incident just had to happen when the town gossip was in the office. Cindy Lewis' expression was already migrating from shock to bright anticipation of how she was going to spread the news of this confrontation between Maggie and the well-dressed stranger.
As Susan slammed the door behind her, Maggie fled to her private bathroom and retched into the toilet bowl. Her heart slammed in her chest as she fought off the dizziness that offered sanctuary from the past.
Please tell me why this is happening? She asked her pale reflection in the mirror as she sloshed cold water over her face and swilled her mouth. Running on autopilot, she ran shaking fingers through her hair to smooth the curly shoulder length strands, then returned to her desk.
She barely noticed the flashing red light on her telephone or the stack of unopened mail. The party invitation had fallen open and Maggie picked it up with shaking fingers, but the message inside hadn't changed: Found You!
Suddenly anxiety hit like a hungry little mouse gnawing at her feelings of well-being. All the sense of peace and security had fled. In her heart she knew she could not deny that familiar feeling of unease.
Something bad was going to happen. Somebody was going to die.
Would it be her, this time?
She'd been a fool to think they'd forgotten about her, and an even greater fool to think she could leave her curse behind.
Maggie grabbed her purse and car keys. She had to get out of here and clear her head.
Nothing was under control.
Perhaps it never had been.
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“I pay you for facts, not fairy tales. You’ve taken a whole series of unrelated events and turned them into some kind of soap opera plot!” Jon ran his fingers through his thick blond hair in a characteristic gesture of frustration.
It was the gesture the heavyset black man across the desk had been waiting for. Warren Dillon, chief of security for Rush Co., was one of the few men who knew Jon Rush well enough not to be intimidated in the face of his anger. Their friendship went back a long way, back to the dark days of their tour of duty in the burning deserts of the Persian Gulf, where the privileged son of a Canadian industrialist and the angry young black youth from the Southside slums of Chicago had forged a lasting friendship.
Coolly, Dillon watched as Jon Rush slammed down the thick red file folder causing a small blizzard of papers to break loose from their untidy stacks on the desk. Then he let out a heavy sigh and, leaning forward in his leather-covered chair, began speaking slowly and quietly, punctuating his words with a stabbing forefinger.
“Jon, your problem is you just won’t believe anyone would betray Rush Co. from the inside. Didn’t you learn anything in the Gulf? You’ve said it yourself - everyone has their price.” He paused for a moment, waiting for Jon’s face to react as the words sank in, and then continued in the same deep, intense tone.
“Even you have to admit that Rush Co. is in trouble. We’ve gone from being the golden-haired boy of the stock market to a walking crisis center in just a few months. Do you really believe that’s just bad luck? Well, do you? Or would you rather own up to jackass management?”
“What the…?” Jon erupted, but Dillon barreled on inexorably right over his boss’s outburst.
“Okay, the computer glitch that screwed up last month’s orders and stopped delivery to some of our biggest customers in the construction division? Sure, that could have been a bug on the line. But the major fire at our plant in
Jon sank back in his chair; his blue eyes bleak on the security chief’s face. If there was one man in this world Jon Rush trusted, it was Warren Dillon - with his life, if need be. He had done exactly that in the past. And yet...
“Okay, let's get this straight. What you’re saying is that someone in this organization - someone very high up with access to the necessary data - is deliberately trying to destroy this company?” Jon Rush spoke with a calm that belied the red flush of anger across his tanned cheekbones. “
Dillon was clearly unmoved. He pointed his forefinger at his boss. “Look, Jon, I might have dismissed these incidents as accidents, too, or at worst I’d have thought them the work of outsiders if sabotage had been proven. But how do you explain the unidentified calls that cancelled orders for the material we needed urgently for the Parry Sound hotel construction project when we were so far behind we were already facing contract penalties?
“And how come Glencoe Oil was able to outbid us on those western options? Explain that. That was after an unsubstantiated rumor started a labor stoppage at our Tiverton field and dropped our shares two points?”
Jon held up his hand as if to stop the reiteration of the troubles that had dogged the corporation’s major interests for the past six months. Like it or not, common sense told him that Dillon was right. Any one of these seemingly random events alone could have been just bad luck or lousy planning. But taken together, what did they mean? Jon’s mind veered away from the possibilities his security chief was now baldly outlining.
But again Dillon broke relentlessly into his thoughts. “Just tell me you’ll think about the recommendations in this file, Jon. We’re talking about some discreet surveillance. That’s all. If we find nothing, then, okay, I’m wrong and there’s no harm done.”
“Really? No harm done?” said Jon sarcastically. His big fist landed heavily on the desk. “Do you honestly think we can keep a thing like this secret? How will our people react to the suspicion, to not knowing if colleagues they’ve worked with for years can be trusted? To knowing that each and every person’s loyalty is being questioned? I’m asking you how, Dillon? You know, my father built this company on loyalty and trust, the kinds of things your ‘discreet surveillance’ would destroy!”
Dillon’s eyes rolled in the direction of the white stuccoed ceiling with its recessed lighting.
Jon ignored the irreverent gesture and continued. “Just how long do you think we can do that before we start to destroy ourselves?” He was leaning forward now, his broad shoulders straining the cloth of his fine gray woolen suit jacket.
“And how long before we’re destroyed anyway?” Dillon shot back. “Jon, do you think your father would have sat back while someone betrayed the trust he’d placed in them? He fought like hell to push Rush Co. to the top - he wouldn’t have watched it crumble to avoid hurting someone’s feelings!”
Dillon knew from the sudden tightening of his friend’s face that his reference to the dead founder’s name and reputation had hit a nerve where previous logic had failed to penetrate. He decided to play his trump card. As Jon glared in angry silence, Dillon pulled a folded newspaper from the polished leather attaché case that stood open at his feet.
It was the business section of that day’s Globe and Mail, the self-styled national newspaper of Canada. He calculated that Jon had not yet had time to read the paper. Dillon’s face was grim as he carefully pushed the strategically opened section across the desk and waited for a reaction.
He didn’t have to wait long. Dillon knew by the livid white line around Jon’s tightly drawn lips that his boss was already absorbing the import of the article with its provocative headline:
Rush Co. To Build Millionaires’ Health Spa in
The headline was insolently rhetorical and Jon’s muttered expletives told Dillon his earlier guess had been correct and this was no company press release designed to titillate potential investors and intrigue the public. Dillon threw a beefy arm over the rich brown leather of the chair back, straining the elegant cut of his dark pin-striped suit jacket, and ruminated on the newspaper contents and their implications as his boss furiously went line by line through the damning news article.
The newspaper report had an authoritative tone to it, Dillon realized. It quoted “unnamed sources” at the company and carried far too many details of Rush Co.’s hotel division’s most recent and most delicate expansion plans - details the company hadn’t made public.
On the brink of launching a major grab for a large slice of the increasingly lucrative luxury health and fitness market, the company had been searching for a very specific setting to create a luxuriously special ambience for a very rich and very discerning international clientele. One of the favored locations was a l9th century “castle” built by an eccentric Victorian millionaire on the shores of Lake Ontario in a remote eastern part of the Canadian province of Ontario.
It had the advantages of unspoiled beauty and 300 acres of woodland and gardens to provide privacy – as well as being little more than a three hour drive from the provincial capital and national business center of Toronto and slightly less than that from the national capital of Ottawa.
But no decision had been made yet, as the company’s special projects branch was still investigating the potential of several sites. Yet the newspaper article had now revealed these close-kept expansion plans to the company’s competitors – a serious disadvantage in a market where competition was cutthroat.
Before such plans were announced, especially those involving a specific site, companies first tried to cover every base, such as health, safety, community, and economic perspectives. This saved everyone from nasty surprises and presented a complete and attractive package to the public at the right time, as well as allowing the company to take their competitors by surprise and show they were way ahead of the game.
* * *
Unless, of course, such plans were announced prematurely. Then the public was treated to the spectacle of a corporate giant caught with its pants down. Like Rush Co. and the
Jon didn’t like the feeling of his company’s exposure one little bit. Damn! Pressing the intercom, he asked Stephen Rush, vice-president for Avalon Hospitality Inc., the conglomerate’s hotel division, and Jon’s own cousin, to step into his office.
Without pausing for social niceties, he tossed the newspaper article across the desk at his cousin the moment he walked in the door.
“I didn’t know we’d made a decision yet on
Stephen’s brow furrowed as he read the article, then he slammed the paper down on the desk. “I know nothing about this,” he declared, “but by God, if it was leaked from anyone on my staff, then heads will roll as soon as I find out who they are.”
Jon’s face was still rigid with anger as he turned to his security chief. “I think we need to get this sorted out,
Dillon cut his boss off. He knew exactly how Jon felt and his own hands itched for action. “I’ll bring proof, Jon, or you’ll get my resignation. I can feel it in my gut that I’m right.” Dillon rose and began stuffing the file folders back into the bulging leather case.
“So, what’s all this about, Jon?” Stephen demanded, raising a quizzical blond eyebrow as he claimed the leather chair Dillon had just vacated, moving it around the bigger man and making himself comfortable alongside Jon Rush’s desk.
“It seems we may have a traitor in our midst.
He’d already buzzed for Cathy, his secretary, and began giving her terse instructions for an emergency department-heads- only meeting to be held within the hour to try to retrieve the rapidly sliding situation. Busy with Cathy, Jon didn’t see the dark look that slid across his cousin’s face, a look that was quickly hidden by his usual expression of charming good nature.
But not so quickly that Warren Dillon missed it, leading him to speculate briefly about Jon Rush’s cousin and sole blood relative.
Two hundred kilometers and a world away from the plush offices of Rush Co., a doorbell chimed in the silence of a charming renovated laborer’s cottage in the grounds of
The doorbell chimed again insistently and, sighing in exasperation, she tucked a rebellious strand of deep auburn hair behind one ear and wiped her paint-smeared hands down the old flannel shirt she wore over a tee-shirt. With a frustrated scowl she picked her way through the littered studio-cum-living room to the heavy oak front door.
She’d gotten home late the previous night from a dinner date in Toronto celebrating the end of a successful exhibition of her work. Unable to settle after the late evening and long drive, she’d wandered over to her easel to take a look at her current work in progress. She scarcely even remembered picking up the paintbrush, but several hours later her muscles were cramping from hunching over the easel, trying to capture that one elusive detail that would bring the entire scene she was working on to life.
Dawn was painting her own vibrant scenes in the sky outside as Lauren felt the first quiver of triumph as the brush strokes began to translate the essence of her imagination.
Then the old-fashioned doorbell had sounded its gruff chimes, shattering her concentration.
“Damn it, I’m coming,” she yelled irritably as the bell sounded again impatiently. She was prepared to give her early morning visitor a real tongue-lashing. But the harsh words died on her lips when she saw the tall, gaunt man standing on her doorstep.
“Paul, aren’t you just the early bird?” she exclaimed instead, immediately hating the false brightness of her tone and knowing from the other’s expression that he had caught the shadowed anxiety behind her words.
With a grim smile, Paul Howard put his hands on Lauren’s shoulders and gave her a brief, reassuring hug. “Lucy’s fine, Lauren,” he told her, “I’m sorry. I should have guessed that my turning up like this would make you anxious. She had a restless night, only to be expected, really, after running herself ragged the way she has been doing.
“I eventually persuaded her to take a couple of the pills Dr. Harris gave her. She fell fast asleep but I was too wired to sleep myself. I took a walk down to Armand’s General Store and picked up a copy of the Globe and Mail. And guess what I found in the business section?”
“Paul, it’s too early in the morning for guessing games. Come in and have some coffee, and tell me about it. I’m glad Lucy’s okay.” She stepped aside to let Paul into her studio. He brought with him the sharp tang of a late
Paul’s wife, Lucy, well-known illustrator and author of children’s books, had recently undergone heart surgery. But the warnings to “take things easy” had gone ignored as Lucy had thrown herself back into a hectic schedule of book signings and promotional touring. She’d returned home, victorious but exhausted, much to the anxiety of her husband and the friends who loved her.
Leaving his snowy boots at the door, Paul made straight for the big old settee in the middle of the all-purpose room, strewn invitingly with bright jewel-colored cushions and a couple of woolly afghan rugs, which Lucy had once likened to “a favorite haunt of a Sheikh of Araby”.
She closed the door and returned to her easel to put the paint away. Swamped by a huge yawn, she paused to stretch her muscles before stooping to pick up the brush she’d dropped when the doorbell sounded.
“Had a late night?” Paul asked with a grin.
“No sleep at all, actually. I met this handsome blond type at the gallery a couple of days ago, who exhibited the ultimate charm – he liked my work.
“One thing led to another. We did lunch, and then we did lunch again. Then yesterday, instead of setting off for home after the exhibit closed, we went out to dinner. I got back here about four o’clock this morning and suddenly had an inspiration about that bobcat–” Lauren nodded towards the almost complete picture on her easel. “..and the next thing I knew, some bum was on my doorstep, ringing the bell loud enough to raise all hell, and demanding coffee.”
“I’ve always said you make the best coffee I’ve ever tasted,” Paul replied slyly, then added, “which is just as well, because you also drink more of the stuff than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Lauren’s coffee consumption was legendary, and she smiled again as she moved towards the galley kitchen to fill a steaming mug for her friend, but Paul motioned her back.
“I’ll get it,” he told her, his face serious again. “Take a look at this article in the paper.”
Puzzled, Lauren took the newspaper and curled up in her big easy chair to read, shrugging her shoulders to ease the tension that had accumulated in her neck muscles from her long night. But in seconds the tension returned in spades as she realized the cause of Paul’s agitation.
They were going to turn Haverford Castle into a millionaire’s health spa? She was barely aware of Paul moving restlessly into the kitchen and splashing coffee from the machine’s glass jug into two of the huge, chunky cartoon mugs he and Lucy had bought her as a joke the Christmas before. She felt her mouth go dry as she read the article a second time and a surge of anger dispelled her original disbelief.
Haverford Castle was home to Lauren, Lucy and Paul, and about thirty other artists and writers, some of whom lived there permanently, as well as others who were itinerant. Ten years before, the elderly owner, Mrs. Shirley Lloyd, had opened up the old place as an extension to her lifelong patronage of the arts.
She’d also established an exhibition center in the main hall, and over the years the whole thing had grown into a lucrative tourist attraction bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local community.
But more importantly, and closer to Mrs. Lloyd’s heart, it had provided opportunities for artists to develop their work, insulated from the constant financial anxieties of the unsheltered outside world. The two art festivals connected to the artists’ colony had become regular events attracting thousands of visitors both nationally and internationally to this rugged, isolated part of
In addition, the 300 acres of the estate’s woodlands and gardens had been left largely untouched. Over the years this land had become a retreat for some increasingly rare animals, birds and plants.
Unofficially, the land also provided a recreational facility for local residents who fished for their suppers (and occasionally hunted a rabbit or two) in the wild, unspoiled beauty. In her mind’s eye Lauren could already see her beloved forest being torn apart by heavy equipment, could hear the remorseless drone of the bulldozers and crash of falling trees, and she could feel the beating fear of the wild animals and birds as their once safe haven was destroyed.
Only to be replaced with swimming pools and hot tubs, massage rooms and saunas, luxury cottages and genteel club meeting rooms. With no heed to the established breeding sites and migratory routes of birds, or to the delicate woodland plants and fauna which had enjoyed the undisturbed security of
Her eyes were drawn across the big, high-beamed ceiling of her open-plan home to the easel she had so recently left. She had struggled all night to perfect the color, the stance, the gleam in the eye of a bobcat she had spotted in the forest just a few weeks ago. All this would be destroyed and for what? So that people who wore themselves out with high living could have a “special ambience” (at least, that’s what the newspaper article called it) to rest and recuperate? All for corporate greed!
“They’ll damned well have to go through me first!” Lauren declared aloud, adding a few choicer expletives to describe the ancestry and intelligence of the anonymous company executives responsible for this plan.
“I see you got the message,” Paul said with a wry grin, returning from the kitchen and handing her a mug of coffee before settling himself back against the settee cushions.
“How can anyone contemplate wrecking something like we have at
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Paul replied, that faraway gaze in his eyes which Lauren knew meant he was focusing inwards. “You and I, Lucy, Mike and his wife, the Polechucks, the Stewards, the Colemans, Armand—we all came here to escape the city and to find something we valued more. We’ve all made
“And right when we thought we’d found a place that fulfilled whatever needs were driving us, when we’d settled down and invested part of ourselves in the community, the Gods of Industry come marauding with their bulldozers and their so-called progress and want to wreck the whole damned thing.”
Paul stood, placing his coffee cup on an antique farm weigh-scale that Lauren had refinished and pressed into service as a side table. “I have to go, Lauren. Lucy may wake up anytime and I don’t want her to be alone.” He hesitated, seeming to come to a decision. “Look, I’ve been thinking. I thought I was done with my law practice when we came here, but I think we have to fight this thing. We can’t just let them come in and take what we’ve built. I’m going to call a meeting at the hall, see what we can do. Can I count on you?”
Lauren stood, too, her auburn head reaching barely to Paul’s shoulder, and silently nodded her assent. A lump came to her throat as she realized how entangled they had become in each other’s lives, and how the prospect of uprooting and moving would devastate these very special friends.
Impulsively, she hugged Paul, taking strength from his wiry, solid frame. For a long time after he left, she stood staring out the window of her loft bedroom towards the tall, stately trees that surrounded her home. But not even the snow-softened beauty of the view could shake her depression.
The telephone began to ring, stopped when the machine kicked in, rang again, and stopped without a message being left, but she remained lost in her reverie as she continued to watch, misty-eyed, the glow of morning slowly changing the landscape.
She thought of her friends among the artists who lived here, and those she’d gotten to know in the surrounding community, and realized that they formed a kind of extended family. She didn’t think she could bear to see it all destroyed.
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the sort of book you want to write, and at what kind of genre/category your
book fits into. It might seem odd to think of marketing before you've
written your book, but students of my writing course tell me that this exercise helps to focus you on your idea and to clarify what you want to do.
Don't take this as meaning that you should try to write a book that fits with other books on the market. What it really means is to get to know what is already out there, who's buying what. This will give you an advantage when choosing the theme and voice of your book and determining freshness of your plot and story, among other things.
It's also the perfect excuse to go browse around the bookstores - and what writer can refuse that? If you can't get into an actual store, go online and visit Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. and look at the categories like mystery, romantic suspense, romance, thrillers, historical, women's literature, etc. Whatever areas you are interested in. See what area the authors you like are filed in - as writers, we often write the kind of book we like to read!
Go into any large bookstore and you'll be dazzled by the wide array of books, the subjects and the variety, all awaiting your eager purchase. But you're moving beyond being a mere bookstore browser - you're a writer and one day soon you're planning to see your own book decorating those shelves. But what kind of book are you writing?
You can see from the shelves there that there are many different kinds. Are you writing mainstream? These are books with a more general appeal, as opposed to say, category romance. Mysteries, crime, literary, biography, docu-drama, science fiction, futuristic, military, gothic, horror, suspense, humour, fantasy, erotica…..
There's even a section called Women's Literature. Yes, I know, I objected at first. After all, why should women's literature be separated out from Literature as if it's somehow inferior? But when you think about it, there are subjects dealt with in this genre that appeal specifically to women. Often they look at relationships, motherhood, sexuality, and survival in a patriarchal society. And the other bonus is that, if you're a woman writing a thoughtful literary novel unveiling some of the issues that intrigue or disturb you, you may well have an edge in getting published in this category.
Even most of the genres have sub-genres: detective novels, for example, have 'cosies', a sort of modern day English country house mystery, and 'hard-boiled' which is the tough private-eye kind of story as made popular by Dashiel Hammett. Then there are detective mysteries, which can be 'hard-boiled' or 'amateur'; police procedurals, private eye novels, or law-and-order police types.
There are the category romances, which are a specialist genre in their own right. If I were to say to you that I was reading a Harlequin Romance, you'd probably immediately have a picture in your mind of a fairly sexy cover, and an idea of a book in which the entire story usually revolves around the growing love relationship between a hero and heroine (I say usually - there are many changes coming down the pipeline, and some companies are publishing books for gay and lesbian relationships, etc. Not Harlequin, Mills & Boon yet, though).
In these stories, everything comes secondary to the love relationship. However, they are category romances because they can be split into categories: you have sweet, sexy, hot, tender, and then you've got medical, suspense, paranormal….all crowding together under the same general heading of category romance.
Now, the reason for knowing what genre your about-to-be-written book falls into is not so that you can put out a cookie-cutter version of the latest best seller in that genre. The idea is to find out what's already out there and who publishes it.
Also, consider the kind of books you enjoy reading. Writers often start out by writing the sort of book they would like to read. List your favourite authors. It's important for writers to read and keep up with current trends. Keep the receipts because in most jurisdictions you can claim books, magazines, etc., as a business expense for your writing. Even if you're making no money from your writing yet, most tax jurisdictions give you a couple of years to get started, allowing you to claim tax relief on your expenses, including your computer, travel, paper, workshops, etc.
Sometimes they may ask to see some evidence that you are writing seriously and attempting to earn an income, so make sure you also keep copies of the letters you will send out to publishers, and the replies you get - even the rejections count for something in the taxman's eyes! Check with your local tax office for further details of what you can claim.
Take a note of the titles in the same general category or genre as the one you plan to write. List their publishers, and if you can, copy down a couple of blurbs from the back or inside cover. You know, the parts that offer a (usually) enticing couple of paragraphs about the story, designed to lure you into buying. And by all means, buy a book, or two or three.
Your next step is to look up the publishers on your list from the bookshop. Use the Writers' Market or Writers' And Artists Yearbook if you have one - it's invaluable for writers. You don’t need to buy a new one every year, but do remember that publishing personnel can move around a lot between companies, so it's usually a good idea to phone or check their Internet listing when you're ready to submit to ensure the editor in the section you're targeting is still there. Or get the new editor's name, no matter how recent your Writer's Market is. There is also an online version.
You can also do online searches for the publishers' websites. Look for 'submissions' (it's sometimes hidden away under the 'contact us' or 'about us' buttons) You will find that many publishers don't accept submissions from unagented writers, which can be a bit of a catch 22 situation as it can be hard to get an agent interested until you're published.
Look through the publishers' sites; look at what they're publishing now that's similar to the sort of book you're planning to write. If you can get guidelines for submissions, and if they tell you what they're looking for, you're streets ahead. Are they looking for stories with lots of action? What level of sexual content predominates? Do they have a lot of humour, or are there mostly dark, edgy titles?
Basically, familiarise yourself with the publishers' requirements, and keep a list and notes - sometime soon you're going to be targeting these publishers. While you are not going to be writing a book deliberately pushed into a specific shape to fit a publisher, you are going to keep one eye on the market as you write. This way you can enhance any aspects of your own work you perceive that publishers want. Keep these notes - they'll help you when you start sending work off.
Don't ignore electronic publishers, either. The pundits are telling us that this is the way of the future and, in my humble opinion; electronic publishing is an exciting field that holds lots of potential for writers. Many epublishers put out a print version of their books. You can surf the internet and find epublishers quite easily. Check out their guidelines in the same way you did the bookstore publishers, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it's easier to get published as an ebook author. The last statistics I saw show that the ratio of manuscripts received to books published is pretty much the same for both print and ebook publishers.
Don't worry if you're thinking this is all about research, and you want to get on with the writing. Marketing, and understanding the market, is an important part of writing. This will become evident as we go along.
In Chapter Two, we're going to start a worksheet, and look at story structure. Have fun in the bookstores!
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