Whistler House Publishing

ISBN-10: 1461015383

ISBN-13: 978-1461015383

May 21, 2011

Trade Paperback

Kindle E-Book


Audio enabled on Kindle devices



In a chain reaction of double crosses, two women stand

in the way of a nuclear disaster.



1. How does the author set up the plot?

2. What role does music play through the story?

3. Which Bible verse does Grace quote the most to Lee? Why?

4. Why does Grace not try to convert Lee to her Christian faith?

5. What happens to Grace that makes her question her faith and God?

6. What historical event brought the two women together? How did it affect them?

How did if affect you, the reader?

7. Why are Lady Grace and the SS officer instantly drawn to each other?

8. How does Erich von Lohren regain his faith in God?

9. Why is Lee so starved for love? How does this affect her relationships with other people?

10. Since Lee does not have Grace’s faith, what sustains Lee through the dark days of her interrogation and torture?

11. Why is the horse such a significant symbol throughout the story?

12. How does the author show God’s forgiveness in the story?

13. If Lee was your friend, how would you try to overcome her distrust of religion and her disillusionment in God?

14. How does the author show the public’s reaction to people who have endured wartime trauma?

15. What happened to the traitor that shaped his ultimate betrayal? Why did he still feel justified in the end?





Historically, the agent “Trudi” really was a second cousin to King George VI. According to Churchill’s master spy, “Intrepid,” she was dropped into Denmark, betrayed to the Gestapo, captured, tortured and presumed dead, though her body was never found at the Copenhagen prison. At the end of the war, SOE listed her as missing in action (MIA).


In creating the story for my novel, I did not set out to trace the actual royal lineage and background of “Trudi,” but in speaking with a British movie producer who is also intrigued with what happened to the real Trudi, we have both focused on the same royal lineage in Norway. He believes Trudi lived in northern Germany or Denmark and spied for the British at length on Hitler’s Penemunde rocket site. William Stevenson mentioned to an interviewer that William Stephenson (Intrepid) regretted mentioning her existence to him in his biography of Churchill’s spy master. That is why any information about Trudi is so sketchy.


So, I worked on the premise, “What if she survived? What would her story be?” From that scenario developed the sisters-in-spirit between Grace and Lee, and their characterizations, together with the other major players in THE CONSUMMATE TRAITOR, are purely fictional.



When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. —C. P. Snow




Monday, April 26th, 1937

Distant droning roiled across the mountaintops. The engine’s thrum blended with the faint babbling that echoed skyward from the small town tucked in the foothills of the valley below her.


Lee Talbot held out her sketch at arm’s length and studied it. Everything around her dissolved as she focused on each line and curve.

Something was missing. She looked up and squinted. Her gaze settled on the highest peak stabbing the sky above the Pyrenees Mountains. Ah. A very important detail. With her charcoal pencil, she outlined puffs of white snow capping the brow of the ancient Mont San Miguel.


There, that’s better.


This morning, Quinn Bergin, another war correspondent like her, had chosen this escarpment for its magnificent view of Guernica. He encouraged her drawing and had left her on the mountainside in northern Spain for a day of respite.


Often, in Madrid, she had pulled out her sketch pad to capture the civil war’s worst moments. But here, the mountains protected the local Basques. They still followed their original customs. Like them, she didn’t believe this valley could be breached. She felt safe and had not rushed her drawing.


Her attention shifted.

Even this far up the mountainside, she could make out the buzz of townspeople bartering over produce and crafts.


When she arose at dawn, she had listened from the window of her hotel room to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves over the cobblestone streets and watched farmers from the surrounding hillsides haul their loaded carts to the market square just in front of her hotel. There, they set up stalls. Now, their far-off natter combined with the nearby bleats of sheep and birds’ chirping washed over her like healing springs. She relaxed, for the first time in months.


Wafts of smoke drifted windward from the chimneys of cottages that dappled the countryside. She sniffed and imagined bread baking inside their brick ovens. Her stomach gurgled. The thought of fresh bread smothered in creamy butter reminded her she had forgotten to eat. Where’s Quinn? He had promised to bring lunch. She glanced at her wristwatch. Four-thirty. Time to return to the hotel.


Again she examined her sketch before she scribbled on the lower right-hand corner: Monday, April 26, 1937. GUERNICA.


A deep-throated roar sprang from behind her. Startled, Lee jumped to her feet and spun around. She knew that sound. A twin-engine aircraft. Cupping both hands over her eyes, she strained to see against the sun’s glare in search of the intruder.


Vibrating air whipped from above, pinning her feet to the ground. She raised and pressed the palms of her hands upward against the slipstream. Her neck arched backward and her gaze froze on the underbelly of a twin-engine bomber. For a split second, the German Dornier Do 17 hung as if suspended overhead, engines whistling in her ears, before it swept screaming down the valley and veered onto a south-to-north track barely above the trees. The plane cast the shadow of an eerie cross rippling over the Rio Mundaca, which wound along the valley floor toward Guernica and the town’s streets rising from the river’s shore.


The bomber banked and then circled back, its nose aimed at her heart in a game of chicken between the pilot and Lee on the outcrop. She stood mesmerized. At the last moment, she ducked as the Dornier rocketed over her head towards the towering peaks behind her. She turned in time to watch it vanish.


Lee gasped, dumbfounded. Had she imagined it? Did she see darts pinned in racks under the bomber’s wings? Only this morning Quinn had told her about an incendiary bomb the Nazis had developed. It could produce massive fires wherever it landed, but he had no idea what the new bomb looked like. Could the cone-shaped canisters the Dornier carried under its wings be test incendiaries?


The thought chilled her. Maybe the pilot was looking for a place to drop them because the Nazis were forbidden to test such weapons on German soil. Though the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from ever arming again after World War I, Hitler now manufactured the most advanced weapons in the world. Who would care about his testing bombs in a civil war the League of Nations ignored?


But this was Basque country. As yet, the Basques had not joined the Republican government to quell the Fascists even though the Republicans had finally granted them home rule. There was no reason the German Luftwaffe should be flying over Guernica.


Lee had to find a phone and report long distance about her sighting to Collier’s Weekly, Ohio’s Springfield-based magazine that specialized in investigative journalism. This time she would scoop Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, whose co-authored features stateside were attracting “freedom” lovers, Marxists and anarchists to join the International Brigade in their support of the Republicans in Spain.

But it was George Orwell who made her life miserable. He not only filed stories from the front line, he also joined in the fighting against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. How could she beat that kind of real-life writing? It dwarfed her sideline observations in her weekly column. Sighting the German bomber now gave her a chance to show her editor that she was as good an investigator as his star war correspondents.


Lee jammed the sketch pad and charcoal pencil into her shoulder bag, flung its straps over her head and looped the bag behind her back. As she scrambled down the steep slope, she tripped and sprawled on all fours. Cursing, she pulled her skirt under herself and slid down the rest of the way to her bicycle waiting by the roadside. No sooner had she yanked the bike upright than she heard the warning rumble again.


She checked the sky behind her. There, the same bomber slipped over the southern ridge further west. Her eyes followed its route. It took the same northern heading above the Mundaca River, but higher. Maybe four thousand feet. Fear knotted her stomach. Something dreadful was about to happen.


Lee ran the bike down the road before mounting it and pedaled off. At the S-turn, she misjudged the sharp angle and almost lost her balance. The bike skidded on the rim of the front wheel before she righted it. For a split second, it wobbled. She regained control and carried on cycling downhill, dangerously careening from side to side at breakneck speed.


Her mind raced in sync with her pedaling. She had met Quinn Bergin in Madrid and immediately liked him, because, unlike most newsmen who continually made passes, he didn’t. Instead, he invited her to join him on a trip to Guernica to study the Basques. She would never have gone alone because her Spanish was too awkward, and the Basques didn’t speak English. So Quinn acted as her Spanish translator. According to him, in Spain’s Civil War, if the rebel Fascists under Francesco Franco were to defeat the Madrid government, they had to beat the Basques first. The question for him was: How vulnerable were they to attack?


This morning, anticipating war strategies was her last concern. When Quinn selected the spot where she could enjoy the best view of the valley for her sketching, she thought he might join her for a picnic and suggested he bring back a boxed lunch from the hotel. He agreed but never returned. What held him up? Where was he? She pedaled faster.


POP! Pop-Pop! The sounds echoed up the hillside like fire crackers exploding one after the other, while green fluorescent flares splintered upward from the valley below. Recklessly jamming on her brakes, Lee locked the wheels and nearly flew over the handlebars.  Pop! Pop-pop pop! The strange eruptions continued. She jumped off her bike, using her feet like drags to bring it to a standstill.


In horror, she gazed downward from the roadside at the fires smothering Guernica’s heart. The market! Her fingers squeezed the handlebars, while the steeple bells of the Santa Maria church rang like banshees pitching their strident warnings over the pass.


THUD! The ground beneath Lee’s feet shook. Explosive booms rocked the countryside. Their repeated pounding burst inside Lee’s head. How could one bomber drop so many bombs? Her ears rang with the thunderous noise, and she gagged on the mixed odor of sulfurous eggs and burnt wood rising from the village basin. The inside of her lips burned from the acidic taste of the dreadful stench.


 Oh no! The hotel! Quinn!


Lee remounted and resumed her frantic pedaling down the mountain road to the Renteria Bridge. She crossed it and headed toward belching flames rising from the center of Guernica. After trying to ride through mounds of rubble littering the streets, she gave up, jumped off, and pushed the bike ahead on foot.


The town square lay in shambles. The Julian Hotel—its front—sliced away, its four stories as bare as the back of a doll’s house. Quinn’s room was at the rear of the hotel, but that was no comfort. He could have been caught somewhere else at the time of the attack.


Across from it, the flattened Train Station Plaza left a mangled mess of shingles, bricks and mortar. Desperate survivors scrambled over the ruins searching for loved ones, and when they found them dead, their screams split the shrill clamor of emergency-response sirens.


As more parts of buildings crumbled, sheers of red dust settled over the debris, while rivulets of flames broke out everywhere, disrupting rescue efforts. Lee choked on the stench and doubled over fighting an urge to vomit.


The fumes and intense heat from the fires burning in the square finally drove her from further searching for Quinn. Coughing, she pushed her bike onto the undamaged Calle de la Estacion and paused to catch her breath. She peered through the late afternoon shadows shedding desolate darkness over the lane ahead. From above, a sliver of sunlight pierced the gloom, illuminating the plaid shirt of a figure lying on the ground.




It had to be him. This morning she had called him a lumberjack.


Lee dropped her bike and ran to the still form. When she reached it, she found a boy no more than nine or ten-years-old. There was no visible injury to show how he died. Instead, he lay there as if asleep, clutching his fishing rod. Even in death, he refused to let the pole go. The irony stunned her.


Memories churned . . . little children in Madrid, made homeless by relentless Fascist bombings—hungry ones, bleeding ones, silent ones, hardly more than babies reaching out to her, begging to be fed, held and comforted, to be relieved of their endless nightmare. These were the children she left behind. Unable to wipe away their tears and heartsick with the realization there was nothing she could do except report what was happening, she clung to the hope that somehow, soon, someone would care and do something to stop this ungodly struggle of Spaniards fighting each other.


By some fluke, the side effect of the bomb’s impact left the boy’s body intact yet partly undressed, vaguely tinted in inky browns. His mouth gaped open like the beak of a baby bird starving. A fly landed on the dry dribbles caking his lips and, with frenzied little skips, jumped onto his protruding tongue, never pausing in its quest to probe for his most succulent blood. She shivered.


As if the fly’s feathery feet were brushing her own skin, she batted the air, to no avail. It kept coming back. She doubled over and held her face in her hands. Dry heaves wrenched her stomach. She wanted to vomit. Bile burned her chest and throat, but something held it back. She slumped and turned away. She could no longer look at the boy, at his young face, at his innocence, at the vermin attacking him.


And then she felt a delicate tapping on her left shoulder. When she looked up, there was no one there. Instead, a mournful cry caught in eternal agony dragged her eyes back to the boy. The sound sprang from deep inside his mouth—a silent scream howling into nothingness. His death tore her apart. She had failed him, and all the war victims she wrote about. Her articles changed nothing. No one cared, no one intervened. The dam of her emotions broke. She crumpled in hopeless sobs beside his body. Together, in a moment of evil, they shared the embrace of hell.



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Bonnie Toews is an award-winning journalist who has covered significant events such as the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Currently she advocates for better care and treatment of Canada’s veterans and veterans’ issues. Her websites are:




Messages by Weyman Jones

Publisher: Gale–Five Star Press
October 2010


Trade Paperback

Copyright © 2010 by Weyman Jones

Chapter 1

Of course she didn’t believe in premonitions.
What was that prickle down the back of her neck as she pulled into the driveway of her condo?  It reminded her that the security director had told her to vary her commuting route every day. She’d told him that would require so much concentration that she wouldn’t be able to enjoy her recorded books in the car.
“I know,” he’d said, arching his brows in that here-we-go-again expression, “you don’t back off from anybody.  But these animal rights people—they’re fanatics.”
“They’re people of conviction,” she’d said. “I respect conviction.”
“You respect people who believe that ‘those who torture should know suffering?’”
“I think that’s just a slogan, and it’s rooted in ignorance.”
“You know they’ve posted your name and address on their website, don’t you?”
“Bart, I’ve never known anyone I couldn’t communicate with.”
“This isn’t a court room, Inez, or a conference room.  Did you ever try to communicate with people who threaten to kill the children of a broker who wrote a policy for a biotech company?”
“Of course that’s hysteria. But Bart, if I could just sit down with—”
“Sure, counsel. You go ahead and negotiate the Treaty of Long Island.” He ran his hand across his brush cut in that macho preening gesture. “But until you do, you’re my worry, and I want you to take some precautions.”
From the pocket of his powder blue windbreaker with the PharmaTech logo he had produced what looked like a toy pistol. Holding it in the palm of one thick hand, he had assured her it was properly permitted and registered and said it fired hollow-nose bullets that made an exit wound the size of a golf ball. She’d shaken her head, saying, “My development is gated, my condo is alarmed and my garage door is electronic. I drive with the car doors locked and a cell phone in my briefcase. That’s enough. I’m not going to start packing paranoid heat.” As a compromise, she’d accepted an upgraded alarm system and the silent SOS, although she refused to wear the pendant with the button around her neck on the ugly beaded chain that looked like a 1930’s overhead light pull.
Now she ignored the prickle down the back of her neck as she pulled up to the post at the foot of her driveway, ran down the window and said, “Nolo contendere.” The garage door lurched and then rumbled open. She drove into the orderly garage with yard tools and trash cans all in place, switched off the BMW, released the door locks, slipped the strap of her Fendi purse over her left shoulder and the strap of her Prada briefcase over her right and stepped out into the familiar quiet. Her key opened the kitchen door, she stepped inside—and there he was.
She threw the ring of keys. It sailed past the grotesque Mickey Mouse mask and jangled against the cupboard. The sappy rubber smile added menace to his voice: “This is your worst nightmare, boss cow.” He stepped around her to block the door. “Tonight, the lab rat’s in charge of the experiment.”
She let her briefcase slide off her shoulder onto the floor as she backed across the small kitchen to the butcher-block countertop, holding her purse in front of her like a shield and keeping away from the confining corner by the sink. “How did you get in here? Past the alarm?”
His voice had a hollow, artificial timbre, as if he were speaking on an inter-com. “Electrons don’t protect you from justice any more than stock options do.”
Below the mask was a gray sweatshirt. He wore rubber gloves and was holding a pillow at the left side of his baggy khaki cargo pants.  Her pillow. He’d been in her bedroom. “If this is about justice,” she said, professional discipline controlling her voice, “then I think you should be willing to hear evidence.  I don’t think you understand what we do at PharmaTechnics.”
“You’re going to tell me that the suffering of animals alleviates the suffering of people,” he said.  There was some sort of electronic resonance in his voice, like someone with a damaged throat who used a device to speak. The same voice she’d heard on her answering machine?
She nodded. “That’s true. We produce genetically altered materials to treat cancer. And Alzheimers and AIDS. Bacteria that eat spilled oil and then conveniently die.” He made a dismissive gesture with his empty right hand but she went on: “And we’re also careful of the laboratory animals.  To minimize their discomfort.”
The cartoon mask snorted a laugh. “Discomfort. Is that the PR word for torture?”
She could see no weapon, just the pillow from her bed.  But he filled the kitchen.
“What we do is all about healing and humanity,” she said, twisting open the gold catch on her purse. “We don’t torture anything.” What is that rubbery odor? His mask and gloves?
He moved to block the door into the garage. “Good. Then you won’t mind if I do to you what you do to animals.”
She moved an involuntary half-step away. “I don’t do anything to animals.”
“Oh I know,” he said. “You don’t drop the chemicals in the rabbit’s eyes, but you patent the compounds that result, right? And you litigate the claims. You’re as much a part of the torture-for-profit business as the sadists in the white coats. You just don’t have to look in the cages.”
She extended a practiced gesture. “Let’s talk about that.” A negotiating tone. “About what we really do.”
“No, let’s talk about what you’re going to do right now.”
She ignored that, trying to establish a negotiation. “Our laboratory animals are—”
“Is it true, counselor, that you have the biggest balls at PharmaTechnics?”
She eased the flap of her purse partly open. “This isn’t really about animals, is it?”
“Of course it is. It’s about a female predator.” He reached into the hip pocked of his cargo pants and brought out an ugly blue-black pistol, no bigger than the one her security director had offered her.
“What do you want?” she blurted, realizing, before she could bite the words back, that the question ceded control.
“I want you on your knees.”
“Oh really?  Is this about me or about animals?”  She slipped her hand inside the purse.
“What do you have in that little flat purse? A gun? A can of mace?”
She fumbled through lipstick, tissue and wallet to find the beaded chain. “Let’s talk about animal rights. We both agree that’s important. Let’s—”
He gestured with the pistol. “Let’s see what you have. Is it true that you bleed pure testosterone?”
She let the purse drop, freeing the chain she was clutching, and held it up to show the pendant attached to it.  “See the button inside this little disk?  When I press that, the police get a nine-one-one call.  They’ve already recorded all the information they ordinarily ask for, and so they just come.  On the double. Now, do you want to talk to me or do you want to talk to the cops?”
Mickey Mouse laughed again. Under the electronic distortion, did she recognize the tone and timbre of his voice?  Or was fear creating a false association? He said, “You don’t really think I’d let you make a nine-one-one call, do you?”
She pulled the slack out of the chain with her left hand to palm the pendant in her right with her middle finger on the button.  “I don’t think you can stop me.”
He laughed.  “I already have.  Go ahead. Press the button.”
“It will only take them—it won’t take them long to get here. They keep a patrol in this area.  Ever since—you know.”
“Ever since you started getting love notes from us? Sure, I know. And I also know that your silent alarm activates a transmitter.  The signal doesn’t even go to the nine-one-oneoperator. It goes directly to the police communications center.”
“Okay,” she said. “Better yet. They get here faster.”
He nodded. “They would, if I hadn’t turned off the transmitter.”  He held up the pillow. “On your bedside table. You made it easy to find.”
She pressed the button. Twice, and then again.
Another electronic parody of a laugh. “Case closed, counselor. No appeal.”
She took a step toward the dining room. Bolt through there into the foyer? How accurate could that little gun be? But the front door is double locked. For security. Lean her shoulder against it and thumb the deadbolt back—he’d catch up in a walk. Control. Buy time.  Negotiate. What does he really need?
She cleared her throat. “Let’s talk about animal rights.”
“What do you know about that?”
She dropped the chain and pendant back into her purse and gripped it with both hands to control the shaking. “I know that animals feel pain and know emotions. Everyone who has a pet knows that.”
“Do you have a pet, boss cow?”
“Not now.  I travel too much.” She glanced around the kitchen. Knives in a wooden block on the counter by the dishwasher. He could block her with a single step. “But when I was a child I had a German shepherd . When we scolded her, she was so ashamed she’d hide her face under her arm.” Inez raised her own arm to demonstrate. Show empathy with animals. “She also knew joy, and love and loyalty.  She even had a sense of humor.  She enjoyed hiding her toys in my bed.” Inez managed a smile. “So let’s talk about animal rights.”
“You think you can talk your way out of anything, don’t you? On your knees, mouthpiece. Learn what it’s like to be at someone’s mercy.”
Mouthpiece. That’s what he’d called her, the distorted voice on her answering machine. This voice. Mouthpiece for torturers. And her name and address and her email address had all been posted on the SACT web site. “I’m an experienced negotiator.  Understand the other point of view—that’s where I come from. I think I may understand yours—your organization’s point of view—better than you suppose.”
“Let’s see if you understand my point of view. Why do you think I want you on your knees?”
“Oh, I understand that.  But don’t you think that’s taking a big chance? You know about DNA—wouldn’t you worry about leaving your signature?”
Mickey Mouse shook his head. “You don’t understand at all. This isn’t about a blow job. You think I’d go to all this trouble for that?” He gestured with the pistol. “This is about you on your knees. Not in charge. And before you say it, no, this isn’t just about animals. It’s not that simple.”
She looked around the kitchen again. Fire extinguisher over the countertop stove, but he was closer to it than she was. Keep him talking. Try to make some kind of a connection. “You want to see me on my knees, right?”
“How many times do you have to hear it, a smart lady like you?”
”And if I do that, then what happens?”
“We negotiate then. Not now.”
“That’s a promise? We negotiate then?”
“You know, boss cow, you’re beginning to wear out my patience.”
“I think we have an understanding, right?”
Another electronic laugh. “Think what you want to think, but assume the position.”
Moving carefully, she closed her purse and set it on the floor, hiked up her skirt, lowered herself to one knee and then the other. When she looked up he had raised the pillow as if to protect his crotch, with the pistol still at his side. She took a deep breath to control her voice and said, “Now we negotiate, okay? People have rights, too. And as people become more civilized, we understand—”
“Say ‘Please, Mr. Mouse.’”
Now her voice quavered. “You said we would negotiate.”
“That’s how we begin the negotiation. Please, Mr. Mouse.”
She swallowed. “Please, Mr. Mouse.”
“Those who torture should know suffering, boss cow.”
“I’ve never tortured anything. I couldn’t torture anything.”
“Let’s not go over that again, boss cow. You defend the torturers. What does that make you, an accessory after the agony?”
“If I promise—”
“We’re past that, boss cow. Now say, ‘Please, Mr. Mouse. Give me a better break than we give the lab rats.”
She bowed her head to his shoe tops. “Please, Mr. Mouse. Please give me a break.” She looked up at the mask.
“You’re too smart.” Mickey said. He brought the pistol up behind the pillow. “I saw it in your eyes. Too smart for your own good.”
She saw the feathers begin to burst out of the pillow ahead of the bullet, which entered her forehead in a momentary flare of white light. ❖

Buy Weyman’s Messages at:
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Reviewers described Weyman Jones’s Broken Glass, as “a fine moral thriller” and The Unexpected as “superb.” His historical novel for young readers, The Edge of Two Worlds, went to seven printings and earned the Lewis Carroll Shelf and the Western Heritage Awards.

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Lucky in Love by Stacey Coverstone

Publisher: Champagne Books
Contemporary Western Romance
June 2010


Trade Paperback

Copyright © 2010 by Stacey Coverstone

Chapter 1

The Lucky Seven Ranch appeared to have run out of luck years ago. Jordan Mackenzie drove under the paint-chipped ranch sign and through the gate and parked her Jeep Cherokee in front of the small adobe house. From behind dark sunglasses, she peered out the front window of her vehicle. As she took a quick look around the property, she got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had she made a big mistake in coming here?
Shutting off the engine, she stepped out of the air conditioning and stretched her arms above her head. It had been a long drive from Colorado to New Mexico. She rolled her shoulders back and bent her petite five-foot-three frame from side to side to get the cricks out of her body.
It was early afternoon and the Southwestern sun hung high and hot over the parched ground. Beads of perspiration immediately popped up on her fair forearms and face. Thank goodness she’d changed out of the jeans she’d first put on this morning and into shorts and a tank top. It felt like a furnace here in the desert. She opened the car door again and rummaged through her purse for a hair band. Finding one, she tied her shoulder-length auburn hair into a ponytail then rubbed an ache out of her neck.
The drive had taken over eight hours, but she’d been so energized and excited that she’d driven it straight through, making only one quick stop for gas and snacks. She had fully expected to pull up to her great aunt Lydia’s house, unload her suitcases, and celebrate her good fortune before heading to town to take care of legal business. All that, however, would have to wait until she overcame her shock.
A lump formed in her throat.  First impressions meant everything to her. At first glance, this ranch was disappointing. It had only been unoccupied for a couple of months, since the death of her aunt. She guessed Lydia had either been too busy with the horse rescue operation to keep up the place, or else appearances hadn’t mattered to the woman. The problem had not been lack of money. The lawyer had made that clear in the letter.
The house itself was charming—just as she’d imagined —but the sidewalk leading up to it was in pieces. On closer inspection, she noticed spider-thin cracks traveled across the exterior walls and its old roof was in need of repair. The yard around it was a foot tall in weeds, and the apple tree in front was in desperate need of pruning. A clothesline stood in the side yard and a big laundry sink was against the wall, which led her to guess there was no indoor washer or dryer. She was a little worried about what the interior of the house was going to look like. She’d find out soon enough. But first, she wanted to check out the rest of the property to see what she was up against.
Jordan strolled over to the barn and slid open the creaky door. Relief flooded her bones as she walked up the center aisle to find the stalls seemed to be in good shape, though they needed to be mucked out and cleaned of cobwebs. There were only a dozen or so bales of hay piled in the back and they looked dry and moldy. They’d have to be removed. The barn could be cleaned up easily with a little hard work, she figured.
Peeking over a half door into the tack room, she spied leather saddles sitting on wooden saw horses, and bridles, bits, halters and lead ropes hanging from pegs on the wall. Feed buckets, a couple of water hoses, and some containers of horse treats sat on the floor, which was strewn with hay. This wasn’t so bad. Her spirits began to lift again. Upon stepping back outside, she walked around to the rear of the barn and examined an old horse trailer parked there. It looked like it hadn’t hauled horses in a long time. She noted the rust and thought a good scrubbing and a new coat of paint would do wonders. Two of the tires were flat, but it looked to be sound. Walking about fifty feet of pasture, she inspected the fence line and was thankful it didn’t seem to need to be repaired or replaced.
When she stepped into the corral, it was as if she could hear the whinnies and snorts of horses running in circles and kicking up billows of dust. From what she’d learned from the lawyer, Lydia had run a horse sanctuary up until the time of her death. The ranch must have been something in its heyday. Now, nothing stirred except some lizards scurrying amidst the dry grass. The lack of activity and quiet country setting caused it to feel eerily like a ghost ranch, not a lucky one.
Jordan walked around to the back of the house and discovered a courtyard enclosed within a crumbling plaster wall. She opened the squeaky gate, entered, and spied the remnants of a spring garden, a large overgrown bush stuck in the corner, and gnarly vines covering an old grape arbor.
A Mexican sandstone fountain stood in the middle of the courtyard, which she imagined was once the magnificent center of attraction, but now was cracked and stained. She wondered when it had last flowed.
Her gaze flew beyond the crumbling wall, out to the desert and the Sacramento Mountains. Scrub dotted the dry ground along with various kinds of cacti, some with yellow and pink blooms, and the afternoon light shone just right upon the mountains to cast a coppery gold glow onto the rugged peaks. The splendor of the view took her breath away.
A tap on her shoulder startled her. Gasping and spinning, she encountered a friendly-looking cowboy. A million miles away in thought, she hadn’t heard a vehicle come up the driveway. Flipping off her shades, Jordan scanned the man and guessed him to be in his late forties.
His tanned face was ruggedly handsome and he was at least six feet tall. He wore a plaid shirt with a western yoke and pearl snap buttons. His boots looked well broken in and a cowboy hat with a wide brim shaded his green eyes. She liked his quick, warm smile.
“Didn’t mean to frighten you,” he drawled. “I saw you pass my ranch. It’s about a mile back that way.” He hooked his thumb in the direction he was speaking of. “My place is the Circle B.”
She’d noticed the Circle B Ranch as she’d driven by. It was a large spread with fencing and barns that looked to be in pristine condition. The house, in particular, had caught her attention as she’d passed. It was an attractive territorial style home with a green tin roof, a grassy front yard, and classic desert landscaping.
“I figured you were Lydia’s niece,” he said. “Been expecting you any day now.”
“You’ve been expecting me?” Jordan’s mouth dropped open.
He nodded. “Before Lydia passed, she mentioned a niece. Said you’d be the new owner of the Lucky Seven.” He extended his hand. “My name’s Brannigan. Wyatt Brannigan. I’m your neighbor.”
Jordan pumped his hand up and down. “Jordan Mackenzie. Nice to meet you.”
“Same here.” He held her hand for a moment longer than she would have expected. When she cleared her throat, he grinned and let her palm slide out of his large hand and he rubbed his chin with thoughtfulness. “I imagine you’re more than a bit shocked finding your inheritance so run down.”
How did he know the ranch was her inheritance? She thought of asking and then decided to let it pass. After all, he’d been Lydia’s neighbor. More than likely, he knew more about
Lydia than she did. “I am,” she replied, “but I suppose it could be worse. I think the outside just needs some TLC. I’m sure the inside is in better shape.”
“You haven’t peeked in yet?”
“No. That’s next on the agenda.”
“Don’t get your hopes up there, either,” he chuckled. “I’m afraid Lydia wasn’t much of a housekeeper. It’s difficult to run a ranch alone. There are long hours and hard work involved.” He slid a querying glance at her. “Lydia preferred spending her time with the animals, as opposed to keeping house.”
“I can understand that, I guess,” Jordan said. Actually, she had no idea how much work it took to run a ranch. She fisted her hands on her hips and looked around again, sighing. Why did she think she’d be up to such a task? She was a city girl.  “I’ve never been around horses,” she explained, “but I always wanted a pet, growing up. I can see how animals might take priority.” She was making small talk to be polite.
The cowboy’s eyes slid up and down her body. “Lydia and I were neighbors for years. She was a proud woman. A good woman. I’ll miss her. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Jordan didn’t feel it necessary to explain at that moment how she’d only met her aunt once in her life and didn’t know anything about her except what the lawyer had written in his letter.
When Mr. Brannigan tipped his hat back, Jordan caught the full effect of his sparkling green eyes. Grinning, his gaze roamed over her curves—starting at her legs, lingering on her well-endowed chest, and finally moving back to her face. He was checking her out, and not hiding the fact!
She prided herself on her intuitions about people. Sizing him up quickly, it was easy to see the man was loaded with confidence and seemed pretty laid back and easygoing. Those were attractive qualities. She liked the way he stood with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets, completely comfortable in his surroundings, looking like he had all the time in the world to kill. She also gleaned more than a hint of mischief behind those bright eyes and that crooked smile.
The intensity of his stare unnerved her while making her all the more curious…and interested.
“She was past eighty, you know,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure of her exact age, but I knew she was up there.”
He nodded again. “She told me once that the only way anyone would get her off this ranch was by way of a pine box. She loved it here.”
“I can see why. The desert is beautiful.” Jordan pushed the rickety gate open and held it for him to step through. She had things to do. He lagged behind as she led the way to the front of the house and back to the driveway.
As she strolled, she sensed his eyes boring a hole in her backside. When she turned quickly, she obviously caught him off guard, because a hangdog expression filled his face. She managed to stifle a grin.
“I’m a little tired from my trip and anxious to see the inside of the house. I drove from Colorado today. I hope you understand.” She didn’t want to be rude, but the day was passing and there was business to attend to.
“Oh. Sure thing.” He held his calloused hand out again and she shook it firmly.
“Thank you for stopping by, Mr. Brannigan. It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we can talk again soon.” She tucked a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear and shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for him to leave.
“The pleasure’s been mine, Jordan.” He touched the brim of his hat and strode toward his pickup. Slowing his pace, he turned before he reached the truck and looked back at her. His eyes narrowed, but the smile remained. “I knew Lydia Albright for over twenty years. In all that time, she never spoke of family. I never wanted to pry. People live here in the desert for many reasons. Some are drawn by the mystery of the mountains, or the beautiful wildness of the land. Others are leaving behind a painful past.” When he stopped there, Jordan inhaled a deep breath, hoping he wouldn’t ask her why she’d come to New Mexico.
“This is a good place to start fresh because people around here don’t ask a lot of questions,” he continued. “I knew Lydia had her secrets, but I can’t even begin to guess why she never mentioned you. It was only near the end that she said she had a niece at all—when she told me she was leaving you the ranch. She obviously cared for you. Seems a shame you never came to visit her.”
Taken aback by his presumptions, Jordan’s eyes grew wide. “Do you always speak with such honest familiarity to people you don’t know, Mr. Brannigan?”
He rubbed a hand across his chin again. “I’m afraid so, Jordan. You’ll get used to it.”
She bit back a smile. His honesty and forthrightness was refreshing. Still, she debated whether to reply. Her family was none of his business. Then again, Lydia had been his neighbor and friend for a long time. It was only natural for him to be curious about her. She was an interloper. If she responded to him, he might be satisfied and leave. Then she could get on with all she had planned for the afternoon.
She shifted her stance. “I only met my aunt once when I was a child. She was my grandmother’s sister. I remember they argued. Lydia left and no one in the family ever mentioned her again. I hadn’t even recalled meeting her until the day I got a letter telling me she’d died and left me her ranch here in Tularosa. I’ve no idea why she left the Lucky Seven to me. But, to be completely honest, I’m glad she did. I’m one of those people needing a fresh start.” She nibbled her bottom lip then asked, “Does that sufficiently answer your question, Mr. Brannigan?”
He shook his head. “Yep. I think it does. For now anyway.”
She watched him retreat. He opened the door to his pickup and stepped onto the running board and looked up. “I just about forgot. The horses are at my place. I moved ‘em over there right after Lydia passed.”
“I wondered where they were. It would have made sense to ask you, but I was planning on talking to the lawyer about them.”
“She asked me a few weeks before she died if I’d care for them until you arrived.”
Jordan’s head tilted. That didn’t make sense. “Before I arrived? What do you mean? How would she know at that time I’d even be coming? I could have sold the ranch from Colorado, sight unseen. In fact, I did think about that, for about a minute.”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe she hoped something would draw you here. Lydia never ran out of hope. You could tell that by the animals she took in.”
“How many horses are there?”
“Six. She sold three a few weeks before her death. You do know she ran a rescue operation here, don’t you?”
“Yes. Well, I learned that from the lawyer. He mentioned it in his letter.”
“Lydia didn’t have much of a head for business, but she never could turn down an abused or neglected horse. They were her passion. She spent every last dime she had to help those animals.”
Jordan knew that wasn’t exactly true. Besides inheriting the house and the ranch, the lawyer’s letter had stated that Lydia had also left her one hundred thousand dollars. Apparently her great aunt had been more of a businesswoman than her neighbor had realized.
“So, when would you like me to haul them over?” he asked.
She shoved her hands into her hip pockets. “Would you mind keeping them a while longer, until I can get a few things settled? I noticed there isn’t any good hay in the barn, and to be honest, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. I don’t know the first thing about horses—although I’m anxious to learn. I might need to get some pointers from you, if you wouldn’t mind.” She sensed he’d be a good teacher, and he was friendly and seemed willing to help.
His mouth curved up. “I’ll be glad to show you the ropes, and I can help out with fresh hay, too.  Just let me know when you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Mr. Brannigan.”
He finally climbed into his truck, turned the key and the vehicle started up with a roar. Sticking his head out the window, he said, “You’ve been calling me Mr. Brannigan, but my friends all call me Wyatt. Besides, the ‘mister’ makes me sound ancient.”
She thought that over a moment. “Let’s give it a little time—see if we become friends,” she teased. “Anyway, I think I prefer Brannigan over Wyatt. It suits you. I’ll stick with it, if you don’t mind.”
He responded with a deep belly laugh and raised his hand to wave. “Have it your way. Just remember to leave the mister off. See you soon, I hope.”
She returned the wave and watched as he drove down the driveway and out of sight. Whirling to face the adobe, she said aloud, “Okay. Let’s see what kind of a mess you’ve left me with, Aunt Lydia.” ❖

Buy Stacey’s LUCKY IN LOVE at:
Champagne Books
Stacey Coverstone is a multi-published author of western and paranormal
romance.  Like the heroine of this story, she is lucky in both life and love.

Visit Stacey’s website at:

May Cooler Heads Prevail by T. L. Dunnegan

Publisher: Barbour Books (November 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1597896764
ISBN-13: 978-1597896764

Copyright © 2010 by T. L. Dunnegan

Chapter 1

In 1833, according to the Kenna Springs Historical Society, one of my ancestors, Tenacious Tanner, was accused of stealing Isaac Farley’s horse. Unable to prove his innocence, Tenacious did the only thing he felt he could do. He broke out of jail and tracked down the real horse thief.
Tenacious found the thief camped out by the Sapawhatchee River. But his attempt to take the man by surprise backfired. The horse thief suffered a heart attack and died. Tenacious,
being tenacious, brought horse and corpse in tow back to Kenna Springs and insisted that the sheriff hang the dead man instead of him.
Ever since that infamous hanging, each succeeding generation of Tanners has been viewed by the townspeople of Kenna Springs as a generally God-fearing, but peculiar lot.
And on the whole, the Tanner clan has always done their best to live up to the town’s viewpoint.
Being a practical sort of child, I never considered myself the least bit peculiar and resented any action or behavior by any and all of my Tanner relatives, including my parents, that pointed in that direction. I was a lot more interested in sanity than most of my relatives. That being the case, eventually I earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. At age twenty-six I headed out into the world as Dr. Dixie J. Tanner. I landed a very good position at a well-established clinic in Little Rock. With relatively good job security, insurance benefits, and a growing savings account, I felt like I had the world by the tail. Oddly enough, most of the Tanners thought I was the one acting peculiar. There’s just no accounting for personal perception.
Six years ago, my parents, Jeb and Memphis Tanner, sold their farm in Kenna Springs and put a down payment on a little condo near the beach in Destin, Florida. It wasn’t a huge surprise. We had vacationed in Destin as long as I could remember. Dad refers to the move to Destin as their “big adventure” in life. Mom calls it her dream retirement. The rest of the Tanners made bets on when they would come to their senses and move back to Kenna Springs. Because my parents live in Florida, I now vacation there and only return to Kenna Springs for family reunions, family crisis situations, and the Kenna Springs Founder’s Day festivities. This summer I managed to combine the Founder’s Day festivities and a family crisis. I helped my fourth cousin, Dyson Tanner, and the potted plant that controls his mind, find a home in a very nice sanitarium.
Shortly thereafter, the Tanner clan divided up into two factions: those who argue that because Dyson’s potted plant showed more sense than he ever did, I should have left well enough alone; and the second, which applauded my efforts and have looked upon me as a one-woman free mental health clinic ever since.
Tanners seldom let much time go by between one family crisis and another. Still, I was surprised when, after brushing off a nightmare blind date early in the evening and settling down in my comfy pajamas with a late night bowl of cereal, the phone rang and it was Uncle Rudd.
By the clock on my kitchen wall, it was eleven thirty when I said hello.
Uncle Rudd, from the free mental health clinic side of the family, firmly announced, “Dixie-gal, glad I caught you. Tried a little earlier, but you weren’t home. We got a family problem up here, and we need your help. You’ll need to make arrangements to stay a few days, so you go ahead and get things rolling, and I’ll fill you in when you get here. We’ll be expecting you soon.”
He hung up, and I was left standing in my kitchen with a bowl of soggy cereal in one hand and a dead phone in the other. Feeling stunned, and wondering what the Tanners had gotten themselves into this time, I put the bowl of cereal on the counter and punched in Uncle Rudd’s phone number.
Before he had a chance to say anything but hello, I jumped in. “Not so fast. I’m tired, it’s late, and it will certainly not be easy for me to make arrangements to get a few days off. Bottom line, I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on.”
“Dixie-gal, you just gotta trust me on this. We need you, or I wouldn’t have called. I’ll tell you what’s going on when you get here.”
I asked the only question that made sense. “Has someone in the family passed away?”
I heard Uncle Rudd sputter the words “family” and “passed away” like they were foreign concepts to him. Then he bellowed so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear. “Well, I wouldn’t call that little ferret-faced varmint, Aaron Scott, family, but he’s dead just the same!”
Even with my uncle’s rather colorful description, I couldn’t dredge up a mental picture of this Aaron Scott. Finally, I gave up. “Do I know this man?”
“Not exactly,” he admitted. “Connie didn’t cotton to talkin’ about the man very much, so naturally the rest of us didn’t, either. The Scott family live around Brogan’s Ferry. Aaron Scott, in particular, is the scummy little toad that skipped town and left your Aunt Connie standing at the altar on their wedding day over forty years ago.”
I knew that someone had left Aunt Connie at the altar, and as a result she had never married, but I had never heard anyone speak his name. As far as I knew it was one of the best kept secrets, if not the only secret, in Kenna Springs.
“And you want me to attend his funeral?” I obviously didn’t get the point.
“Dixie-gal,” Uncle Rudd groaned, “Aaron didn’t just pass away in his sleep real peaceful like. He was murdered.”
Murdered! The word slammed around in my head from one side to the other, giving me the beginnings of a terrific headache.
“And it wasn’t my baby sister that done him in, if that’s what you’re thinkin’,” he growled. “But it sure looks like she did!”
Right then and there I should have hung up the phone, packed my bags, and moved into a condo near my parents. Instead, I asked the question I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer to. “Okay, Uncle Rudd, why does it look like Aunt Connie murdered this guy?”
Uncle Rudd huffed. “It’s against my better judgment, but I’ll give you the bare bones of it. None of us has seen or heard from Aaron Scott since he left Connie at the altar. That is, until he showed up here in town sometime yesterday evening. Nissa and I heard about it when we were having supper over at Patsy’s Café tonight. ’Course, we got worried about how Connie was going to react, so we drove over to her place. We parked in the alley behind the flower shop, like we always do. We started to head up the stairs to her place over the shop when we noticed the back door to the shop was cracked open some and the lights were on inside. Nissa thought maybe Connie was so flustered at hearing that Aaron Scott was back in town that she forgot to turn off the lights and shut the door when she closed up the flower shop for the evening. We went in. . .and, well. . .that’s. . .”
Uncle Rudd’s voice trailed off until he stopped talking. I waited quietly. Finally, I heard him take a deep breath and let it out. “That’s when we found Connie and Aaron in the shop. Connie was sitting on the floor, moaning, and her eyes were all crazy-like. We tried to get her to talk to us, but she started saying stuff that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. She just moaned and rocked back and forth holding Scott in her arms, and him just laying there with a pair of her flower-cutting scissors sticking out of his back.”
Uncle Rudd’s voice quivered, and he quit talking. I knew I should respond, but I couldn’t translate my thoughts into words.
My head began to throb in earnest. Somewhere in the back of my mind was the perfectly good notion that I needed to move someplace where there are no telephones and no one could even pronounce the name Tanner.
I had heard enough to know this didn’t look good for Aunt Connie. I started to speak, but my mouth was so dry I had to stop and clear my throat. Swallowing as best I could, I croaked out the words, “Would you mind telling me again why you think Aunt Connie didn’t kill this Aaron Scott? I must have missed it the first time around.”
“Now see here, young lady,” Uncle Rudd bellowed again. “You just proved my point. You think she killed him, just like everyone else around Kenna Springs will. But I got her to make just enough sense to know that she didn’t kill him. I know good and well it looks bad for Connie. That’s why it’s up to us Tanners to prove she didn’t do it.” Uncle Rudd paused for a brief second, then announced, “And I’ve come up with a plan to do just that!”
I immediately quit worrying about my aching head and my cotton-spitting mouth and felt the thump, thump of a nervous tic that was developing at the corner of my left eye. All things considered, I didn’t care that my voice sounded a bit testy when I asked, “Plan? What plan?”
“I ain’t got all the particulars worked out yet on how we’re gonna catch that killer. That’s why we need you up here.”
“You want me to help you work out the particulars on a plan to catch a killer?” I couldn’t keep the shrillness out of my voice. “Uncle Rudd, that’s just. . .well it’s just. . .” I wanted to use the word “insane.” Instead I settled for, “It’s just not practical.”
“I’ll work out the plan, Dixie-gal, you don’t need to worry about that. We need you for something else. See, Connie is pretty rattled, and she keeps talking in some kinda code. Nissa calls it symbols. Don’t matter what you want to call it, we can’t make heads or tails of it. So I was thinking that since you did such a good job with cousin Dyson, and you know all that psycho mumbo jumbo, you could help us decipher what Connie is talking about. Then we would have our first clue as to who really killed Aaron Scott.”
“It’s psychological mumbo jumbo, if you please,” I muttered, wondering how I could explain to my uncle that this was a lot different than finding Dyson a nice place in which to be psychotic. I’m not trained to decipher coded messages—or find murder clues for that matter.
I knew Uncle Rudd wouldn’t listen for two seconds to all the sane reasons I shouldn’t get mixed up in this mess, so I settled for what I considered to be the next best tactic and said, “Of course, I’ll be there to support Aunt Connie in any way I can. But Sheriff Otis may want a therapist that is licensed in the state of Missouri to talk with her.”
“Doesn’t matter what the sheriff wants,” he huffed, “because tellin’ Otis Beecher isn’t part of the plan.”
Fearing that Uncle Rudd had, as so many Tanners before him, excused himself from the Dinner Table of Intelligent Reasoning, and was now in a feeding frenzy at the Buffet for the Befuddled, I used the same calm, well-modulated voice I had used with Dyson. “Maybe it would be a good idea to inform Otis about Aaron Scott’s murder. After all, Otis is the sheriff as well as a friend of the family. I’m certain he’ll see to it that the truth comes out. Besides, one cannot simply leave dead bodies lying about and expect people not to notice. Surely this man’s family is wondering what happened to him?”
“Nope, nobody will be missing him,” Uncle Rudd replied gruffly, “because nobody knows he’s dead. We hid the body where no one will find it.”
I knew it! The minute Uncle Rudd used the word problem, I should have packed my bags, bypassed Florida, and headed out for some remote South Sea island where I could learn
to juggle coconuts and simultaneously sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But since it was now the middle of the night and much too late to get in touch with a travel agent, I pleaded, “Be reasonable, Uncle Rudd. Where in Kenna Springs could you possibly hide a dead body? It’s a small town. People see things, people know things.”
“Reasonable?” Uncle Rudd exploded. “You want me to be reasonable? If old Tenacious Tanner had been reasonable, they’da hung him for horse stealin’ instead of that dead horse thief. I’m telling you straight out, we hid that body real good. Nobody is gonna find it unless we want ’em to. End of story!”
“All right, all right, you don’t have to yell,” I told him. “But you and Aunt Nissa locked up in jail for hiding a dead body is not how I want either one of you spending your golden years.”
“What? You think I’d let Nissa drag around a dead man? I’m not that big a clod. She took Connie upstairs, got her some things packed up, and then took her out to the car while we did what we had to do.”
Since the “we” part wasn’t Aunt Nissa, I was left to wonder which cousin was egging on this latest Tanner madness. Personally, my vote would’ve gone to cousin Woody. At one time there was talk of reinstating hanging in Kenna Springs just for the benefit of seeing Woody swing. However, no one had seen or heard from Woody since he took off for California ten years ago, and Woody’s parents moved to Florida soon after. It couldn’t be cousin Dyson and his potted plant. I had talked to Dyson on the phone this morning (I declined the opportunity to chat with the plant). No one else came flashing into my mind, so I asked, “Who is ‘we’ then?”
“We’ve talked long enough, Dixie-gal. It’s time you started packing. I’ll tell you the rest when you get up here.” Uncle Rudd hung up.
He had me and he knew it. As things stood, there was a murderer running loose in my hometown, a dead body tucked away from prying eyes, an aunt who apparently now speaks in code, and a sheriff who knew nothing about any of it. And of course, the Tanner family was right in the thick of things. What choice did I have? I packed my bags.  ❖

_    __________________________________

T. L. Dunnegan wrote for over two decades.  She passed away in 2006 and her family, particularly her son, Patrick, worked hard to bring his mother’s dream to fruition–the publication of this book.

An Uplifting Murder by Elaine Viets

ISBN: 978-0-451-23170-3
Paperback Original $7.99

Copyright © 2010 by Elaine Viets

Chapter 1

“You want me to take off what for this assignment?” Josie Marcus asked. She stared right in the red, ratlike eyes of her boss, Harry the Horrible. They jumped like gigged frogs.
“Uh, your top,” Harry said. The manager of Suttin Services was completely clothed, except for the little bulges of hairy fat that escaped through his gaping shirt.
“Is that all?” Josie knew Harry wasn’t telling her everything. She had a ten-year-old daughter. Josie was an expert at ferreting out half-truths.
Harry flinched. “And your bosom thingie,” he said. “Your bra.”
“I’m supposed to strip naked for a mystery shopping job?” Josie clenched her hands to keep from punching her flabby boss.
Harry took one look at her eyes and grabbed the St. Louis phone book. He held it in front of him like a shield. Josie was only five foot six, but she was mad enough to deck the guy.
“Just your top half,” he said. “And there are no men around. It’s all girls.”
“Women,” Josie said. “Grown women are not girls. Unless you want me to strip at a grade school.”
“Okay, women,” he said, quickly. “I need you for this job. All women wear bras. It’s no big deal. Especially for you.”
Josie’s glare should have lasered every hair off his hide.
“I wasn’t getting personal,” Harry said. “I meant that you – as a female person – are used to taking off your clothes in doctors’ offices and when you get your annual chest squashing.”
“What’s that?” Josie asked.
“My mom gets them to make sure she doesn’t have cancer,” Harry said.
“Those are called mammograms,” Josie said. “My mother gets them, too.” She tried to hide a smile. From what her mom said, Harry had given an accurate description of the procedure.
“Please, Josie. I’m not talking dirty. I just don’t know how to say it right.” The big oaf was pleading now. He had the charm of an unkissed toad.
“You sure don’t,” Josie said. She looked through his office door into the main room of Suttin Services. Dust motes danced in the early morning light, haloing the IT guy working on a computer. The sun gilded a muscular telephone repairman installing another inside line. None of the staff or other mystery shoppers had arrived yet.
“There are two men in the office now,” Josie said. “Take off your shirt and show them your chest.” Josie would bet her next paycheck that his breasts were bigger than hers.
Harry clutched the phone book to his chest, horrified as a maiden aunt propositioned by a randy priest.
“I couldn’t,” he said. “That’s different.”
“Why?” Josie said. “They’re strangers. And guys. You’ll never see them again. You’re a man. You can walk around on the beach without a shirt. I can’t.”
“I’m the boss,” Harry said, trying to cover himself with a shred of dignity.
“And I’m a peon. So I should go naked,” Josie said.
“No,” Harry said. “Can I back up and start again? I didn’t get off on the right foot. Desiree Lingerie, the fancy ladies’ underwear chain, want you to mystery-shop their store at Plaza Venetia. They’ve had a complaint about one of their saleswomen. I mean persons. Did I say it right?”
“Saleswoman is correct,” Josie said.
“What I was trying to say is that every woman gets measured for a bra, so you’d be used to the process of undressing like that.”
“Every woman with some bucks gets measured,” Josie said. “The rest of us buy our bras off the rack at stores. Target doesn’t have bra fitters.”
“Desiree Lingerie is more upscale than that,” Harry said. “But it’s for women only. It’s supposed to be a place where women feel comfortable with their bodies. They got a complaint that one of their saleswomen is making rude remarks about the size of the customers’ — ”
Harry stopped while he mentally searched for the proper word. “Chests!” he finally said.
“What do I get paid for these insults?” Josie asked.
“You’ll make your usual fee,” Harry said, “but there’s an extra benefit. Desiree Lingerie is not returnable. You’d get to keep the bras and panties, up to two hundred dollars’ worth.”
Now that was a bonus, Josie thought. She had a new boyfriend and lacy underwear was a frivolity she couldn’t afford.
“Where’s the store?” Josie asked.
“Plaza Venetia in West County. Where the super-rich shop. Nice atmosphere. Pleasant people. Good working conditions.”
“That’s the most expensive mall in the area,” Josie said. “For two hundred bucks, I’ll be lucky to get one bra.”
“But it will be a great bra,” Harry said. He knew he’d almost sold her on the job. He reached into his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper.
“Here’s the list of questions. You have to ask for Rosa. She’s the saleswoman the company wants checked out. They have two complaints that she made rude comments about women’s chests. She’s a Latina, so they can’t fire her. Political correctness, EEOC and all that.”
“Plus she could be innocent,” Josie said.
“Well, there’s that,” Harry said. “But Desiree is taking the complaints seriously enough to investigate. The company wants some ammunition and they want it documented in writing. Maybe you’d like to take that friend of yours, what’s her name?”
“Alyce,” Josie said. “Does she get paid?”
“No, but she can keep her bra, too. She’s a big lady.” He pantomimed large rounds in the air.  “And you’re . . .” He stopped, catching himself like a runner about to go over a cliff.  “And you’re not.” He made a small cup with his hands. Very small.
“So between the two of you, you’d would cover . . .”
Harry stopped and looked frightened.
Josie decided she’d take pity on the miserable worm. “We’d cover two different body types,” she said. “I’ll ask Alyce if she wants to go.”
“Good.” Harry looked relieved.
“But if you’re not going to pay her, I want two bras with matching panties for both of us.”
“You got it,” Harry said.  “There’s just one hook.”
“There always is,” Josie said.
“You’ll have to go this morning.”
“That will depend on Alyce’s babysitter,” Josie said.
“Do I have to get her a bra, too?” Harry asked.  ❖



Elaine Viets is the author of the Josie Marcus Mystery Shopper series and the Dead-End Job mysteries. She has won the Anthony and Agatha Awards.



Muddy Waters by Maggie Toussaint

ISBN: 9781601548276
The Wild Rose Press

Trade Paperback

Copyright © 2010 by Maggie Toussaint

Chapter 1

“How’s my favorite southern realtor?”
Roxie Whitaker frowned at the slight. She wasn’t just a realtor, she was a broker.
A glance at the text window of the phone yielded “Restricted” as the caller’s identity. No help there. She had to wing it. “A good Tuesday morning to you as well. How may I help you today, sir?”
At his smug chuckle, her back teeth ground together. Whoever this was, he enjoyed teasing her. It wasn’t any of her friends here in Mossy Bog. There was something familiar about the voice though, some element of cultured refinement that came through loud and clear.
“Rox, Rox, Rox, I hated those property prospectives you sent me. I want the place on Main Street.”
Sonny Gifford. Her South Carolina customer. “I’m sorry 605 Main Street is not for sale, but I’m certain Marshview Realty can meet your property needs. Will you be down tomorrow or Thursday?”
“Can’t make it, chickie. Too busy, but I’m heading your way next week.”
“Great. Call me when you lock in the date.”
“The way I see it,” Sonny drawled into the phone. “The owner of the Main Street property should jump at my offer. I’ll pay top dollar for the place, say a hundred grand?”
Sometimes people assumed that due to her relative youth, she didn’t have a lick of sense. Sonny Gifford radiated that vibe. The hairs on the back of her neck ruffled. “That property isn’t for sale, Mr. Gifford, but I’ll relay your interest. If the owner wants to sell, we’ll move forward with a reasonable offer.”
Sonny huffed a few breaths into the phone. Would he hang up on her? Tell her he was taking his business elsewhere? Roxie hovered in a breathless void of uncertainty.
“What about personal handling?” Sonny’s voice roughened. “Couldn’t you be extra nice to him to soften him up? Bat those pretty eyes at him and jam a contract under his nose at the same time. Old guys love private, personal attention.”
Her jaw dropped. She tried to speak and no sound came out. Finally a squeak emerged. “Mr. Gifford. I’m appalled by your suggestion.”
“No need to get huffy. It wasn’t like I asked you to sleep with the guy to seal the deal.”
“Mister. Gifford.”
“It’s Sonny, and I’m kidding. We wouldn’t want to cross any lines here, now would we?”
“No. We would not.”
Silence filled the line. She still wanted to sell a property to Sonny, but she didn’t want to talk with him, think about him, or see him ever again.
“Perhaps I should speak with him,” Sonny said.
“You’re certainly welcome to explore that avenue.”
“From the tone of your voice, you don’t approve?”
A muscle twitched in her cheek. “Call me if you decide you want professional real estate assistance in Mossy Bog.”
She ended the call and glanced over at her associate, Megan Fowler. “That was weird. A buyer more or less suggested I sleep with a seller to get a listing he wants.”
Alarm flared in Megan’s eyes. She reached for the phone. “We should report him.”
“I know. But then he said he was kidding. Why would he even joke about such a thing?”
“Your client is an idiot. I’m calling the cops.”
Roxie couldn’t afford to throw away a single customer. “No need. He isn’t local. It’s the jerk from South Carolina. If he comes here again, I’ll make sure I meet with him in a public place. It isn’t like he propositioned me.”
“He wanted to pimp you out, which is far worse in my opinion.”
Wednesday’s Open House on Walnut Street netted a few curious neighbors but not one nibble on Naomi Thompson’s adorable cottage. Roxie hoped for more success when she repeated the Open House in two weeks.
Her shoulders sagged, and her fingers tightened on Miss Daisy’s steering wheel as she turned off Prospect onto her driveway that evening. A snail chewing his way through the marsh would have made more headway than she had this week.
Dusk had settled, lengthening the shadows in her yard. Once she stepped inside her house, there was dinner to fix, pies to bake for the animal rescue group, and then a quiet evening with the latest Alyssa Day book. The Atlantis theme of Day’s work drew her in hook, line, and sinker.
She shouldered her purse and locked her vintage caddy. A single woman living alone couldn’t be too careful, even here in friendly Mossy Bog. She took a misstep over the hose she’d forgotten to put away last night. Righting herself, she noted it was too dark back here.
Her back porch light was off.
A smidge of unease rumbled through her. Roxie peered into the deep shadows of her yard. Was there trouble afoot? The urge to run back to the safety of Miss Daisy grew from a faint whisper to a steady thrumming in her ears.
What was she doing? The crime rate in Mossy Bog was practically nonexistent. With that reassurance, her nerves steadied and logic returned.
Lights burned out all the time. She’d get a new bulb from the pantry and have it fixed in two shakes. Fortunately, she knew the traffic pattern of her ground-level porch by heart. In seconds she stood at her back door, feeling her way through her key set, searching for the key with a pointed head. Got it.
She fumbled for the knob, and the door swung open.
Fear bolted through her. No light. An open door. In one heartbeat she went from confident, assertive woman to scared out of her mind. Instinctively, she raced for the safety of her car. Locked Miss Daisy’s doors. Floored the vintage Cadillac out of the driveway. Only when she reached the lighted convenience store five blocks away did she reach for the phone.
Laurie Ann Dinterman, city police officer, met her in the parking lot a few moments later. Laurie Ann pulled up next to Miss Daisy, lowered her car window. Serious brown eyes peered from beneath the rim of her police hat. “What’s up?”
Roxie found it hard to steady her breathing. The lights seemed too bright. The ordinary noises of town were too loud. “Someone was in my house. They may still be in my house. I don’t know. I just had to get out of there.”
Laurie Ann frowned. “You all right? Did you see anyone?”
“I’m fine. Scared, but fine.”
“Did you see anyone?” Laurie Ann repeated.
“No. But I didn’t look either. I was so freaked out. I ran. I’m sorry I didn’t pay closer attention.”
“Was anything stolen?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t go inside. Just got out of there and called y’all.” Sirens wailed in the distance.
Laurie Ann nodded in the direction of the noise. “That’s my backup from the Sheriff’s department. You did the right thing to get out of there. We’ll check it out for you.”
Shivering, Roxie followed the police cruiser back to her place. She waited in Miss Daisy while the officers entered her house with guns drawn. Her beautiful cottage glowed in an unearthly blue wash of emergency lights. Seconds of her life ticked by, an eternity of staring at her house, her home, which had been invaded by strangers.
The world spun off center, and a heavy weight pressed on her chest. She gasped for air, realized she’d been holding her breath, and focused her thoughts on breathing.
Three cops emerged from her house. Robbie Ballard and Jink Smith waved as they hopped into their cruisers and left. Laurie Ann approached Miss Daisy.
“All clear.” Laurie Ann holstered her weapon. “No one’s inside your house now. You sure you locked the door this morning?”
Roxie nodded too fast. Her pulse raced in her ears. “I always lock it.”
The cop took a long breath. “The kitchen was ransacked. Other than that, it may be the tidiest house I’ve ever been in. Come inside and tell me if anything is missing.”
Heart pounding, Roxie eased inside the porch and kitchen. Laurie Ann was right. Her cookbooks had been thrown on the floor. Every drawer had been emptied, pots and pans pulled out of cabinets. She picked up her precious cookbooks and skimmed through the titles. She scanned the rest of the rubble. Nothing seemed to be missing. What was going on?
Dazed, Roxie slumped into a kitchen chair. “I don’t understand. Why did someone break in if they didn’t take anything?”
Laurie Ann started to say something, stopped, then spoke. “That’s why I asked if you’d locked up this morning. It could have been something simple like that. Just didn’t pull the door all the way shut as you hurried off to work and a kid got in here.”
“No way. Gran taught me to double check each time I lock a door. This place was locked up tight. I guarantee it. Someone must have broken in.”
“The thing is—” Laurie Ann leaned forward in her chair, interlacing her fingers on the table. “There are no signs of forced entry. If you didn’t leave the door unlocked, this intruder is very very good. To be honest, we’ve never had such a high caliber housebreaker here in Mossy Bog. There’s usually a broken window or something pried open. Crime always leaves a mark. And stuff would be missing – electronics, jewelry, art, fancy clothing, collectibles, guns, liquor.”
“I don’t own a gun, and there’s no hard liquor in this house. I don’t have any of that fancy other stuff either. I don’t understand.”
“Someone was looking for something. But we don’t know what it is. Worse, we have no evidence.”
“What about fingerprints?”
“Did you touch the doorknob?”
Laurie Ann appeared to give the idea some thought.  “Nah…seems to me this kind of housebreaker would be smarter than your average bear. We’d need to call the state boys in to process the scene.” She looked at Roxie, still frowning.  “If you really want us to, we can dust for prints but it’s messy and my gut feeling is it won’t give us anything new.”
“I didn’t make this up.”
“No one thinks you did. We don’t know what happened. But you need to be safe and think safe. You want me to call Megan to come over and stay with you?”
Roxie rose with Laurie Ann. “No need. I’ll be fine. I’m used to being by myself.”
“I’ll patrol extra on your street tonight and leave word with the police chief for the other shifts to do the same. You have any other trouble, you call me, okay?”
Roxie locked up after the cop left. Walking through the house, she flipped on one light after the other. She hated the thought that someone had been in here, that someone had snooped through her things. Back in the kitchen she cleaned up the floor, stuck all the dishes and flatware in the dishwasher. She tried the porch light. It came right on.
Waves of fear lapped in her head. A nameless, faceless person had pawed through her things. A ghost of a person. Heart pounding in her throat, she shrank away from the window and called her best friend. “Can you and Dave come over?”
“We’ll be right there,” Megan said.
Roxie’s hand shook as she ended the call. Grabbing the butcher knife, she huddled on the floor to wait for her friends. Thoughts whizzed through her head like sheet lightning over the marsh.
Someone had been in her home.
Someone had opened locked doors without leaving a mark.
Someone wanted to scare her.
Someone had accomplished their goal.
By Friday, Roxie had her nerves under control. The break-in lingered in the back of her mind, but she wouldn’t let fear dictate how she lived her life. Today she could handle the ringing of a phone or a clump of Spanish moss swaying in the breeze.
With that mindset, she initiated an online property search. Too tacky. Too scuzzy. Too far out of town. Only one house in town was the same vintage her customer wanted, her own home on Prospect, and it wasn’t for sale either.
Roxie paged resolutely through the listings. Sonny Gifford wanted an older home, but it had to be on a main road. Location, location, location. How many times had Gran drilled those words into her as she’d learned the trade?
The office phone shrilled, and fear darted into her bloodstream. With a hand to her thumping heart, she answered the call. “Marshview Realty. This is—”
Megan’s anguished sob warbled through the line. “I can’t do this.”
Roxie leaned forward and gripped the phone tightly. The terror of Wednesday night hovered in her mind. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s too much to do. I can’t possibly pull this off by this evening.”
Wedding jitters. Nothing life threatening. “Everything was fine two hours ago. What happened?”
“These stupid tablecloths. That’s what happened. These wrinkles came over on the Mayflower. The more I iron, the worse they look. I’m all hot and sweaty from ironing. Why did I let you talk me into staging my own wedding?”
“Hold up. I didn’t talk you into anything. You wanted—”
“I know. I know. I made the decision to do all this.” Megan sighed. “But I’ve got a lot of whine left. Right this minute, I’d rather be drowning in debt than working my fingers to the bone six hours before my wedding. People will be here soon, and I’ll look like something the tide washed ashore.”
“You’re there alone? Where are your sisters? Where’s your mother? They’re supposed to be helping you while I man the shop.”
“It’s been a circus all morning. My cat stowed away in the trunk, got carsick, threw up on Mother’s dress. Felicity took the cat to the vet, and Courtney is with Mother.” Megan hitched in a breath. “My flowers aren’t here either. Where’s your brother?”
“Timmy’s not there?”
“No.” Muffled sobs filled her ear. “How can I get married without flowers? Brides are supposed to carry bouquets. All I’ve got is this iron. I’ll probably kill a bridesmaid or two when I chuck this sucker over my shoulder.”
“Take a deep breath. We can fix this. I’ll close the office early and pick up your flowers. Keep decorating the parish hall. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Why didn’t I elope?” Her friend sniffed loudly. “People who elope don’t have these issues. I’ve already drained three bottles of water. I’m going to swell up like a blimp, my gown won’t fit, and Dave will run screaming from the church.”
Roxie snorted with laughter. If Megan could crack jokes, things weren’t quite at the brink of doom. But where was Timmy? Had he overslept? She hung up with Megan and dialed her brother’s cell phone. It rang and rang until a recorded message announced his voice mail box was full.  Had something happened to him?
Of course not.  This wasn’t related to her intruder.  This was just par for the course.  She needed Timmy and he wasn’t available. How many times had this story played out in the last five years?
She’d catch up with Timmy later. Right now, she had a friend to rescue. She shut down her computer and grabbed her purse. She had keys in hand when a black SUV turned into her parking lot amid a swirl of autumn leaves. The tinted windows made it hard for her to see inside.
Through her glass storefront window, she watched as the vehicle halted under a moss-draped oak tree at the far edge of the parking lot. The driver appeared to be male, with a cell phone glued to his ear. Chances were it wasn’t one of their rental clients or homebuyers. They would have pulled up to the front door.
Could it be a new client? A real, live client?
Quickly, she dialed the Muddy Rose. “Jeanie, I need a favor, and I have to talk fast because a potential client just pulled into my lot. Can you deliver Megan’s flowers to the church?”
“I thought Timmy was on tap for that.”
“He’s not available. I was on my way when this car turned in. Can you manage?”
“It’ll cost you.”
“Name it.”
“I want one of your pumpkin pies, a loaf of your raisin bread, and you have to chair the vendor committee for the spring festival. Our first meeting is coming up soon.”
“Man. You’re a regular barracuda today.”
“One more thing.”
“More?” Roxie kept one eye on the vehicle in her parking lot.
“Show the buyer my cousin Brent’s house. He’s got a new baby on the way.”
“I’ll do my best. Let’s hope this buyer brought his checkbook. And, Jeanie?”
“I’m alone. If I don’t call back in ten minutes on your cell, call the cops.” She hadn’t felt completely safe since Wednesday’s break-in.
“Don’t worry, I’ll drive by there on my way to the church.”
Roxie ended the call, popped a breath mint, and stashed her purse in a desk drawer. Glancing down, she made sure there weren’t any cracker crumbs on her white blouse or khaki slacks.
The vehicle’s door opened, and a large black and tan dog charged out, circled the perimeter of the sunny lot and found a tree to bless. A whistle shrilled, and the German shepherd vaulted back in the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Her heart softened.
She’d always wanted a dog.
A dark-haired stranger in snug jeans and a muscle-hugging black polo climbed down out of the SUV. A shadow of beard lent him a dangerous air that shot her pulse through with something besides fear.
Married, no doubt.
They always were.
Think positive. He might buy waterfront acreage. The commission from a sale like that would keep her afloat for another year. She prayed with all her might that Marshview Realty was the solution to his problem.
Warm Indian summer sunshine wafted in through the front door with him, along with a fresh woodsy scent. Nice, Roxie thought. Very nice indeed.
She glanced up at him, appreciating his height. At five-seven, few men in town were taller than she was. He looked six-two, easy. His angular face wasn’t handsome in the classical sense, but she found all those lines and angles interesting.
His dark brown eyes locked on her as he crossed the carpet. His sure stride made her wonder if he already had a property in mind. She loved customers who had done their real estate homework.
She beamed a welcoming smile. “Welcome to Marshview Realty. How may I help you?”
“I’m looking for Ms. Roxie Whitaker.”
His voice rumbled through her in a pleasing way. He knew her name? “That’s me. What can I do for you?”
He handed her a business card. Bold red letters proclaimed Team Six Security. Near her thumb was a simplistic outline of a house.
“I’m Sloan Harding. You wrote me about a property I own.”
Realization dawned. Not a client. A neighbor, of sorts. She drew in a shallow breath of appraisal. And what a neighbor. Too bad he lived in Atlanta.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Harding,” she said, hiding her disappointment. “That water oak branch did serious damage to your roof. I’m so relieved you’re here. Have you been by the house?”
He nodded tersely. “The yard is very well maintained.”
“Oh.” Roxie chewed her lip, wondering how much to tell him.
“I wasn’t aware of an arrangement to care for the property,” he said. “I pay the taxes, nothing more.”
“Gran mowed your yard and weeded the beds,” she explained. “When I inherited her house and business, I, um, took on that responsibility as well.”
“My grandmother, Lavinia Bolen.”
“Lavinia’s dead?”
Tears brimmed in her eyes. She blinked them away. “She passed away last year.”
He tucked his fingers in the back pockets of his jeans and seemed to be grappling with the news. Had he been close to Gran? Gran had barely mentioned Sloan Harding to her in the ten years she’d lived in Mossy Bog.
“How much do I owe you for mowing the lawn?” he asked.
Heat flamed her cheeks. She hadn’t done it for the money, but because it was the right thing to do. “You don’t owe me anything.” Coolly, she opened her desk drawer and extracted a page from his file. “Here’s a list of local contractors you can call for estimates.”
He took it and scanned the page. “Why are there plumbers and electricians on this list?”
“There may be other repairs needed. Your house has been vacant for thirteen years.”
“Thank you.” He frowned. “Are you always so helpful, Ms. Whitaker?”
“Call me Roxie, and I enjoy helping people.”
Her phone rang.
“Excuse me.” Please don’t let it be another wedding emergency, she prayed as she picked up the line. Instead her brother’s flat voice sounded in her ears. His problem hit her like a steamroller. She jotted down the information in a daze, then hung up the phone and sank into her chair.
“Is something wrong?”
“My brother. Timmy’s in jail.”
“What’s the charge?”
“Drunk and disorderly conduct.” Tears of frustration welled in her eyes. “Timmy and his college buddies were picked up early this morning.”
Her new neighbor handed her a tissue. “I wouldn’t worry. A night in jail builds character.”
She stared at him, stung by his judgmental tone. “Timmy could have been hurt, or worse, he could’ve hurt someone. He’s only nineteen years old. Where did he get the booze?”
“Really. I wouldn’t sweat it if I were you.” Her absentee neighbor edged toward the door. “I’m sure your brother will grow up to be a fine upstanding citizen. He’s got you.”
In agitation, Roxie dabbed at her tears. He was right. But she couldn’t very well dance at Megan’s wedding while Timmy was locked up in an Atlanta jail.
Wait a minute. Sloan Harding was from Atlanta. “Do you know anything about the jail Timmy is in? Are the cops well-trained?”
Harding’s lips quirked, and Roxie bristled. Did he think her questions were funny?
“No one has escaped from an Atlanta jail recently, if that’s what you mean,” he said. “You planning to bake him a cake with a file in it?”
“Of course not. Will they lock him up with hardened criminals?”
“He’ll survive.”
Timmy had sounded so defeated on the phone. “He told me not to come, but I should go anyway.”
“You going to yell at him about drinking?”
“Definitely. I can’t believe he was so stupid.”
“Then don’t go. Your brother knows what he’s done.”
If Timmy knew better, why did he keep making stupid mistakes? “He’s messed up before, but he’s never been in jail.” She waved the man’s business card at him. “Will you help me check on him? Maybe you have some connections? Someone who could give us inside information?”
For a long moment, she thought he would refuse. Then he unclipped his phone. “Where is he?”
She handed him the number she’d jotted down. Why couldn’t Timmy follow the rules like everyone else? Sometimes it was hard to believe they had the same DNA. The more responsibility she took on, the more Timmy shirked.
Her unexpected visitor finished his call and turned to face her. “They’ll hold your brother a few more hours, then he’ll be released. I imagine he’ll go home and sleep it off. You can fuss at him tomorrow.”
“He’s in good hands?”
“He’s fine.”
Relief made her lightheaded. Timmy wouldn’t be in jail much longer. That was good. He’d go back to his apartment and crash. Her free-spirited brother would survive.
But he wouldn’t be in Mossy Bog tonight. Which left her without an escort this evening.
Truthfully, going with Timmy wasn’t much better than going stag. Everyone in town knew how many dates she’d had in the last year.
She glanced at Sloan Harding. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. Unless she’d gotten her wires crossed, he’d been looking at her with interest, at least until Timmy had called.
She blurted the question before she talked herself out of it. “You doing anything for dinner tonight?”
“Dinner?” he asked, clearly startled.
A trickle of perspiration dampened her spine. His grimace kicked her in the gut. What had she done? Asking a perfect stranger to dinner was forward by anyone’s standards.
She swallowed hard, wishing he’d turn her down and leave. It was bad enough she’d pressured him to check on her jailbird brother. The silence stretched out like a sea of ocean waves between them.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put you on the spot like that. I apologize.”
He narrowed his gaze. “What’s going on?”
“Never mind.” Her stomach clenched. She dug her keys out of her purse. Time to get going. Time to put Sloan Harding in her rearview mirror. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
He stepped between her and the door. “I’m available for dinner tonight.”
She shook her head. “I apologize. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not in the habit of inviting strangers to dinner. It’s just…I’m just…well, the truth is, Timmy was supposed to be my date for a wedding.”
His brow furrowed. “You need me to stand in for your brother?”
“You don’t even know Megan or Dave. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Please, explain.”
Roxie gripped her keys in both hands. “Really. It’s no big deal. I feel awful for mentioning it.”
“No problem. Tell me where we’re going for dinner.”
She gnawed on her bottom lip. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, but I don’t like to go into any situation blind. What did I agree to?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, digging deep for courage. She drew in a deep breath for good measure. “My best friend, Megan Fowler, is getting married tonight. You’re welcome to attend the ceremony, but coming to the dinner afterwards will be enough.”
“Fine. I’ll pick you up. Where are we going?”
“St. John’s Episcopal Church, on Main Street. It’s half a mile south of your house. The wedding is at six, and the dinner buffet is at seven-thirty. No need to pick me up because I have to be there at five. Could you meet me in the parish hall between seven and seven-thirty?”
“I’ll be there.”
“Thanks. I owe you big time for this.”
“I owed you for the yard work anyway. Let’s call it even.”
Roxie’s gratitude fizzled. One dinner date versus thirteen years of yard work? No way was that even.
Surprising her, he shot her a “gotcha” look, then chuckled in a way that ruffled what was left of her composure. “Don’t worry. I promise to be a full-service date.”  ❖

Buy Maggie’s MUDDY WATERS at:
e-book: digital format at Wild Rose Press
trade paperback: Amazon   Wild Rose Press


Award-winning author Maggie Toussaint is published in romantic suspense and mystery. She writes of the South, of things which are hidden, of people who’ve lost their way.



Defending Glory by Anne K. Albert

ISBN: 978-1-935407-95-9
Vanilla Heart Publishing

ebook available 9/30/2010
Print available 2/2011

Copyright © 2010 by Anne K. Albert


Aidan “Mac” McKeown palmed the bullets doctors removed from his right thigh and stared out his office window. Daffodils, tulips, and marsh marigolds lined garden paths beyond the alleyway at the back of the building. The fragrant scent of lilacs sweetened the air. Robins chirped on their endless hunt for worms. It was a perfect Thursday morning in northern Minnesota. The kind his partner would have cherished.
If he were alive.
A true hero and all around good guy, Ben should have been the one to survive the ambush. He had every reason to live. A loving wife. Two adorable children.
Mac’s fist tightened around the spent ammo. If only he could remember what went wrong that day. He had snippets of blurred images, fragments of shouted warnings, but nothing concrete. He woke up in the hospital two days later, and at the grand old age of thirty one learned a valuable lesson. There was no grand scheme. No master plan. And most certainly, no merciful God in heaven.
He tossed the bullets into the middle drawer of his desk. Why rehash the past? If Ben were alive, he’d order Mac to snap out of it and focus on the here and now.
“Pay attention,” Ben would say. “Never let your heart rule your head. It’ll get you every time.”
Exhaling slowly, Mac began to sort through a stack of bills. He divided them into two piles. Those he could pay and those he could not. Topping the former was the rent for the century old, red brick building that housed his office on the ground floor and a small two-bedroom apartment he called home on the second. After that he could pay the minimum amount required on the electric and telephone bills. The rest would have to wait until next month.
Or the month after that.
The recent downturn in the economy affected everyone. The good news was he did not have the added responsibility of a family to take care of, but many of his creditors, local entrepreneurs like himself, did. That bothered Mac. His bills were more than just a bunch of numbers or tallies of services rendered. They were mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. He had to find a solution to his cash flow problem before it became their problem, too.
A warm breeze whooshed through the open office window, whipping the items he’d pinned to a cork bulletin board on the wall opposite his desk. One photograph and accompanying article snipped from the local newspaper caught his attention. Written less than a year earlier to coincide with the grand opening of McKeown General Contracting, it told readers how as a young boy he had worked with his grandfather, a master tradesman in Minneapolis. Fond memories of their fishing trips to Piedmont Island spurred Mac to move north and open his own business.
He had felt so confident then. So certain he’d made the right decision. But with few construction projects on the horizon, and cash so tight he could not afford to paint his company’s name or phone number on the side of his truck to attract future clients, it was doubtful he’d still be in business by the end of summer.
Then what?
The buzzer inside his shop blared. A quick glance at the wall clock provided a spark of hope. 8:00 A.M. on the dot. Someone must need his services to come by so early in the morning. Reaching for his cane, he pushed himself up from the chair, and headed to the front of the building. A couple stood near the counter with their backs toward him.
“Good morning,” he said. “How may I help you?”
They turned to face him and his optimism fizzled. Although he did not recognize the woman, he was acquainted with the man. The pastor’s appearance inside his shop could mean only one thing. They had no desire to save his business. Their only concern was his soul.
Pastor Rick Wainwright’s eyelids flickered as he spied Mac’s cane. “How’re you today?”
Mac forced a smile. “I can’t complain.”
“I’d been under the impression you’d purchased tickets for last week’s church supper, but I don’t recall seeing you there.”
“I had other plans.” And he did. He rarely missed Monday Night Football. “I gave the tickets to my landlord. He and his wife said they had a lovely evening.”
The single word spoke volumes, making Mac wonder how far the pastor would pursue it today. He found the minister’s concern for his welfare irritating and unwarranted. To his relief, Wainwright gestured to the woman by his side.
“I’d like to introduce you to Glory Palmer. Glory, this is Aidan McKeown. The man I told you about.”
Mac groaned inwardly. He could only imagine the things she’d heard. Besides skipping out on church suppers and declining repeated invitations to attend services at the Piedmont Community Church, he’d also refused to provide any details about his life prior to moving to the island.
Nonetheless, he extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you. And call me, Mac.”
She gave his hand a quick, but firm shake. Her straight, strawberry blonde hair swished against narrow shoulders. A tiny gold cross at her throat shimmered in the soft fluorescent light.
“I own a cottage at Hanover Point,” she said. “Are you familiar with it?”
“I’ve motored past a couple of times when I’ve been out that way fishing.”
“It needs a major overhaul.”
Well, well, well. Perhaps he had been a little hasty in assessing the reason for their visit. She had a renovation project and the pastor had obviously recommended him for the job. Mac did a mental arm pump.
“It needs a new kitchen,” she said. “But I’m unsure what else to do.”
If memory served him correctly, the building was approximately twenty years old. “It depends on how often you plan to use it.”
“Year round. I’m going to live there.”
At Hanover Point? He did a double take. Dressed in navy slacks and a white silk blouse, the petite young woman had ‘city girl’ written all over her.
“It’s isolated,” he pointed out. “During winter the road is often closed due to blowing and drifting snow. You could be stranded for days without heat or hydro.”
She arched a brow, as if to suggest it was no concern of his. And she was right. Still, he could not deny how he felt. Imagining her alone and at the mercy of the elements kick started every protective cell in his body. Or was it something else? It had been a very long time since he’d fallen under the spell of a pretty woman. And Glory Palmer definitely fit into that category.
“My family’s owned the property for years,” she continued. “But until last fall I’d never had any reason to visit. This may sound silly, but from the moment I arrived I felt as if I’d come home. This is where I belong.” Her eyes darted to the pastor. “My future’s here.”
Mac saw the flash of emotion in her eyes. The realization she and the minister could be more than friends bothered him. Yet it made perfect sense. Otherwise, she would have come alone to discuss the renovations.
“We’ve spoken to a number of your clients,” the pastor said, as if reading Mac’s thoughts. “Everyone is more than pleased with your work and highly recommends you.”
“I give each project my all, and strive to complete it on schedule. And within budget.”
“That’s precisely why we’re here.” Glory smiled, adding, “The pastor and I were on our way out to the cottage to assess what needs to be done immediately, and what can be put off until next year. I was hoping you’d come along. I’d appreciate your input.”
He did not hesitate. Business was business. He grabbed a notepad, his cell phone, and followed them outside.
After he locked the front door, he heard her say, “I also have another project in mind, but there’s a catch.”
His fist tightened around his cane. Of course, there would be a catch. He should have seen this coming. She intended to finish what the pastor had begun, and save his soul. He shifted his weight to the other foot. Regardless of how much he needed this job and the income it would provide, he had no choice but to make his position clear.
“If it has anything to do with attending church,” he said, looking pointedly at the pastor, “you can count me out.”
If Glory had not seen the transformation with her own eyes, she would not have believed it possible. One moment Mac was professional and congenial, the next dark shadows cloaked his features. It was as if he’d suddenly become encased in a block of ice.
Pastor Rick had warned her of Mac’s aversion to religion. The pastor had even suggested he remain in the background until after construction began, but Glory refused.
“Your involvement,” she argued, “should have no bearing on his decision. One construction project is the same as another to a general contractor.”
“He’s a troubled man, Glory. Think hard before you hire him because once you do, you’ll have to deal with him on a daily basis. Is that what you truly want?”
She paused to give it some thought. It saddened her anyone could be so afraid of letting in the light. Or worse, believe coercion could ever force acceptance of the Lord. Then, an image of Logan flashed inside her head. He needed her. Now more than ever. She refused to let him down and would deal with a hundred McKeowns if need be.
“I want the most qualified person for the job,” she told the pastor, “If that’s McKeown, then yes. He’s the man for me.”
An elderly couple passed by on the street. Their friendly greeting and warm smiles brought her back to the present.
“Let me explain,” she said, looking Mac straight in the eye. “Renovating my future home is important. It’s a necessity even, given the climate. But my first priority is the establishment of a Christian retreat.”
“A retreat?”
“Three, two-bedroom units. I hope to add three more next spring, but time will tell. I’ve picked out a potential building site slightly to the west of my cottage. I think it’s perfect, but I’d like yours and Pastor Rick’s input before I make a final decision.”
“You want me to build three homes, and call them a Christian retreat?”
“Not exactly. Initially I’d planned to act as my own general contractor.”
Before he could point out the folly of her ways, she raised her hands in surrender. “As foolish as that may sound, I’d expected to spend the entire summer on the island, and with nothing else to do I honestly thought it was feasible. Unfortunately, certain,” she paused to search for the right word, “obligations require me to spend a good portion of next month elsewhere. This means I need someone to take charge while I’m away. I’d like you to be that person.”
Mac fingered his key chain.
The faint jingle jangle set her nerves on edge, and evidently Pastor Rick’s as well. He began to fidget. It didn’t take a mind reader to be privy to his thoughts. It was written all over his boyish, freckled face. He’d warned her Mac would back out, and suggested she find someone else to do the job.
What the pastor didn’t know was she’d already spoken to a number of contractors. Most lived and worked out of Duluth, the nearest city. None were willing to commit to the project. They cited her desired completion date unrealistic for three separate units. They also considered the drive a major deterrent. The commute would eat up four hours each day, and possibly delay the project further.
Mac pocketed his keys. “What exactly do you want from me?”
She pursed her lips. “I need you to start work on Monday.”
“That’s four days from now.”
“Uh-huh. And there’s one more thing I should mention.”
He narrowed his gaze.
“It’s imperative the retreat be finished by the end of August.” There. She’d said it.
Whatever Mac was thinking, he kept hidden. The blank expression on his angled face would have made Stonewall Jackson proud.
“I’ve spoken with a number of local tradesmen,” she said, hoping to prove to him that she had some inkling of what was involved. “They’ve agreed to be available and on site whenever you need them. All they ask is that you phone the day before to give them a heads up.”
“How did you manage that?” he asked.
“The majority attend our church,” Pastor Rick explained. “They’ve a vested interest in the construction of the retreat. Most will likely make use of its facilities when it’s completed.”
“Let me get this straight,” Mac said, returning his attention to Glory. “Starting on Monday you want me to update and winterize your cottage, plus begin construction on a grouping of three more homes that will be used as a Christian retreat, and you expect me to have everything completed by the end of August?”
“Yes. Well, not so much my home, but the retreat, yes.”
“And that’s the catch? The August deadline?”
She nodded. “It’s not like you’ll be working all on your own. I’ll help anyway I can when I’m here. So will Pastor Rick.”
“What do either of you know about construction?”
“Not much,” Wainwright admitted. “But I know a thing or two about people. What motivates them. And what spurs them on to do great things in the name of the Lord.”
“I see,” he said, but Glory suspected he did not.
“And I can make phone calls, place orders, arrange deliveries,” she added. “Whatever needs to be done. Please say you’ll be my general contractor.”
When he did not immediately respond, her heart did a flip-flop inside her chest. Pasting what she prayed was an optimistic smile on her face, she pointed across the village street to her blue VW beetle. “Tell you what. Why don’t you hold off on your decision until after you’ve surveyed the building site? Shall we go? I’ll drive.”
“Please. I need you.” She reached out to touch his forearm, and then seeing him flinch, immediately removed her hand. She felt her cheeks burn. She’d never begged before. Nor had she confessed to a handsome stranger she needed him. But she did, and now that she’d finally met Mac McKeown face-to-face, that terrified her more than she cared to acknowledge.
He peered at her for what seemed an eternity, and then he smiled. A soft, easy smile that added a sparkle to his eyes, and somehow lifted the weight of the world from his broad shoulders. The insides of her mouth felt dry as unbuttered toast, while her pulse pounded double time. Etiquette screamed for her to break off her gaze–she was after all staring, but her eyes remained fixed on the man.
He tapped his cane against his leg. The dull thud of wood against jeans and flesh penetrated the fog inside her brain.
“I need more leg room,” he said. “I’d rather drive my own truck.”
“Oh!” she stammered. “We’ll meet you at the turnoff, then.”
* * *
Mac climbed into his red, Ford pick-up and questioned his sanity. Why had he changed his mind? He’d been all set to walk away from the project. Being that he and God were not on speaking terms, he figured it was for the best. That, and Glory’s August deadline. In theory, it was doable. Barely. But delays were the norm rather than the exception in construction, and he wasn’t about to make a promise he could not fulfill. Then, he’d taken one look at her pale green eyes when she’d blurted she needed him, and he’d done a one-eighty.
He wanted to tell himself it had nothing to do with the woman and everything to do with the fact he desperately needed the job and the money it would bring, but he knew it was a lie. Something was troubling her. He’d seen it in her eyes. Heard it in her voice. Felt it in his soul. He wanted to make the problem go away. He wanted to promise her everything would be all right. Then, take her in his arms–.
Mac scowled, then cranked on the ignition and headed toward Hanover Point. What was he thinking? The last thing he needed in his life was someone to care about. He’d already lost everyone that had ever mattered. He didn’t have the stamina or strength to do it again.
He’d agreed to look at the cottage as well as the retreat’s location, but that was as far as he was prepared to go with Ms. Glory Palmer. He’d tell her the truth. He wasn’t the right man for the job. She would have to hire someone else.
Twenty minutes later, he spotted her VW bug parked at the side of the road. Pastor Rick stood next to the vehicle, but Glory was nowhere in sight.
“Where is she?” he asked when he reached the pastor’s side.
“Over that ridge.” He pointed toward Lake Superior. “She saw some wildflowers and said she just had to pick them. I said I’d wait for you.”
“I appreciate it.”
A late model, black, GM truck towing a fishing boat zoomed past. The rear tire of the trailer swerved off the pavement and dusted them with a splattering of dirt and gravel. Rather than slow down, the driver, hidden behind tinted windows, stepped on the gas.
“Is he crazy?” The pastor brushed the debris from his sleeve. “He could’ve killed us.”
“Or himself.”
The vehicle disappeared around a curve in the road, but not before Mac memorized the license plate number. Some habits, he realized, die hard.
The pastor started down the laneway that led to Glory’s cottage, and Mac followed his lead. They passed a cluster of tall pines. Their majestic branches rustled in the breeze, filling the air with a clean, fresh scent.
“How long were you in the special forces, Mac? Or was it law enforcement?”
The question came out of nowhere, cutting deep. “Never said I was.” He sidestepped a puddle, a reminder of the previous night’s violent thunderstorm. His cane sunk deep into the mud. “My past is no one’s business but my own.”
The pastor stopped at the crest of a knoll, and stared off into the distance. “That’s exactly what my brother used to say. He served three terms in Iraq. Didn’t return from the last one.”
He spoke so quietly Mac had to strain to hear what he was saying.
“Action like that changes a man,” the pastor added. “I wasn’t there for my brother, but as God is my witness, I’ve vowed to be there for others. I want you to know you can count on me if you ever need to talk. I’m a good listener.”
In his mind’s eye, Mac could almost see the company shrink prodding him to accept the offer. He’d sat in on a few sessions after the shooting, and found it a relief to share some of his story. But he’d never entirely opened up, and doubted he ever would.
Or could, given his memory lapses.
Since moving to Piedmont Island, Mac had concentrated on building his business rather than forging friendships. Ben’s death had taken its toll. Mac missed the camaraderie, the bantering back and forth. Out of the corner of his eye, he studied the man next to him. Pastor Rick was close to Mac’s age, and their religious views aside, they might actually have something in common. How would he know unless he gave the red haired minister a chance?
“Do you follow the NFL?” Mac asked.
“Oh, yeah.” They talked about football for a few minutes, and then the pastor asked, “Are you going to enter the fishing derby next month?”
“I’ve been thinking about it. You?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Last year one of the boys from our youth group caught the winning walleye for his age bracket. This year nearly everyone has signed up. The only problem is we have more boys than equipment.”
“I have a couple of extra rods you can borrow.”
“That’d be great.”
They continued along the path, past a maple bush where the pastor spotted deer tracks in the moist dirt.
“Looks fresh,” he said.
“So do these.” Mac nudged the imprint of a tire tread with his boot. Its size indicated a large truck. Perhaps it belonged to one of the tradesmen Glory had contacted. He made a mental note to ask her about it. And then remembered he intended to walk away from the project.
And her.
Using his cane like a golf club, he knocked a rock out of his path. That decision should have put him at ease, but it didn’t. Why?  ❖



Anne K. Albert has taught high school art, sold display advertising for a weekly newspaper, and worked for a national brand water company, but now writes full time. A member of the Romance Writers of America, Anne loves to write books that chill the spine, warm the heart and soothe the soul.