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YOUR NOT WANTED HERE
The words were written in dripping bloodred paint on the front door of the building Tamara Jacoby had just signed the final sale papers on. She'd been the proud owner for only twenty minutes. Her lawyer's mind, still sharp, still observant, wanted to change the your to you're. Her single female mind, still somewhat wounded, wanted to run to the car, jump in, lock the door and drive as far away as possible.
Wait, she'd already done that. That was how she'd arrived here in Sherman, Nebraska—far, far away from Arizona.
"It's not blood," she assured herself.
And William Massey is in jail, for a long, long time.
Still, to make sure, she whipped out her cell phone, dialed the 602 area code and spoke with a guard she knew at Florence Penitentiary.
Yes, William Massey is still in jail.
Which left Tamara wondering who on earth was after her now.
YOUR NOT WANTED HERE
Her sister Lisa, who lived here, called Sherman a safe little town.
Yeah, real safe.
She finally managed to control her breathing. Next, she unclenched her fingers and looked around.
A police cruiser turned the corner. The officer behind the wheel didn't even look Tamara's way, and she didn't wave him down.
She'd had enough interaction with the police to last a lifetime. First, thanks to her profession—lawyer. Last, thanks to the case that drove her out of Arizona—victim.
I am not a victim, she told herself.
No, she didn't want her first interaction with law enforcement in her new home to be a "rescue me" appeal. She wanted it to be an "I'm a force to be reckoned with" landing.
She fully intended to go back to being the kind of lawyershe'd been before William Massey fixated on her—successful, controlling and confident.
Right now, she'd settle for confident.
Tamara felt a chill. She wanted to blame the May weather, but the sudden chill had nothing to do with the rain. She'd had the chills every day for the past six months. Thoughts of William Massey had that effect on her. They had started the day he'd gone from client to deranged stalker. They'd doubled the day he'd gone from stalker to attacker.
Tamara took a tiny step forward. She had to do something. She couldn't stand on the sidewalk all day. She had to face whatever was in front of her. Had to. Otherwise, she might never practice law again.
Threats were part of the job.
Tamara studied the warning again. Not only was the wrong spelling used, but the letters were long and in some places the paint was almost too faint to read, while in others, it globbed. The vandal was probably right-handed, based on the slant of the graffiti. Also, whoever wrote the words was most likely tall, Tamara's height.
She looked up and blinked against the Nebraska sun, suddenly aware that she was busy assessing evidence as if preparing for trial.
She definitely didn't want the attention that would come with reporting this crime. Nor did she have the time. Not if she planned to turn this neglected old building, a building that had started life as a farmhouse and had last been used as a church, into a law office and get back on the fast track.
Did Sherman, Nebraska, even have a fast track?
Tamara pushed open the church's door, careful to avoid the paint, and took a step inside.
She suddenly stopped.
She'd seen dead animals before; they didn't scare her. But something about how the tiny mouse was laid out on the floor in front of her let her know the creature hadn't died a natural death.
It had died to prove a point.
YOUR NOT WANTED HERE.
She turned, tried to leave, and ran into something hard and unyielding.
She let out a squeal.
"Hey" came a deep voice. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Whoever blocked her way was all male. The scent of sweat combined with aftershave and heat permeated the room or at least the space directly around her. Her hand went inside her purse. Mace was at the ready, but warm, strong fingers clamped down hard on her elbow before she could snag the small tube and take aim.
"I'm not going to hurt you, Tamara," a calm voice stated. "It's Vince Frenci. I just got off work and was driving by and saw you standing on the sidewalk. You weren't moving, so I doubled back to see if everything was all right. What's going on?"
Her hand still clutched the mace. Tamara could feel her heart pounding, but she didn't want him to know he'd scared her. Some men fed off fear.
"There's a dead mouse," she managed to say. Her heart still beat a little too quickly. Her feet still refused to move.
You know Vince, she reminded herself. More than a year ago, they'd walked down the aisle together, thanks to her little sister's wedding. He'd been a little rough around the edges, but he was her brother-in-law's best friend. Which meant he probably knew her story, about the stalker and why she'd fled Phoenix, and why two weeks ago, she'd started the move to Sherman.
It's a safe little town.
He let go of her elbow and stepped back. Both of his hands went into the air as if he thought she'd shoot him.
She looked up at him and loosened her grip on the mace.
His hands left the air. "Look, if you're thinking about spraying me, don't bother. I'll just back out of here real quick like."
She finally let go of the mace. "I'm all right, and I remember you, Vince."
It would be hard to forget someone who looked like Vince Frenci. The man in front of her was working class through and through, with dark stubble, black spiky hair and piercing mahogany eyes. His clothes—blue chambray shirt, tight jeans, oversize brown boots— were worn for comfort and use, not for show.
"So, you want to tell me what's going on?" he asked.
"Can I blame the dead mouse for the warning on the door?" she replied.
"You want to tell me what's really going on?" Vince asked.
She shook her head.
"Well, you need to tell me something. Eventually, I'll be the one to get rid of the paint on the door. I'll—"
"What do you mean, you'll be the one?"
"I've been the yardman for this property for more than a decade. Every other Saturday, I mow, repair and clean. If something's amiss here, I report it."
"Billy didn't tell me you worked for Lydia."
"Billy Griffin? How do you know him?" Vince asked.
Tamara held up the key. "I purchased this property from him. Signed the purchase papers about an hour ago."
"Hmm," Vince said. "I didn't even know this place was for sale. I wonder what Lydia's gonna think about Billy selling off her property."
"She'll be grateful that her son cared enough to make sure she was taken care of in a top-notch nursing home."
Vince shook his head. "I don't think so. If Lydia had wanted this place sold, she'd have done it years ago."
"Why didn't she? I mean, what a waste of a commodity."
Vince shrugged. "If I had to guess, I'd say this plot of land meant something to her family, but she never said anything about fixing it up. She never let anyone inside, not that I know of. I'm surprised Billy sold it, but since he never really lived here in Sherman, maybe he doesn't know the history of this place."
"Or maybe he doesn't care."
"If I know Lydia Griffin, she's gonna care and Billy will be getting an earful after she walks out of that nursing home on her own two feet."
Tamara had met Lydia Griffin last year. At that time, Lydia had been Tamara's niece's babysitter as well as Lisa's more than feisty landlord. Lydia had taken a fall two months ago, hit her head and broken her hip. The day she was supposed to get out of the hospital, she fell and broke her hip again. Now, she was slowly recuperating.
"I've been doing the yardwork since I was eighteen," Vince said. "That's one of the reasons I noticed you trespassing." Then, his expression changed from serious to teasing. "That and your red hair."
"I'm not trespassing," she reminded him. "I bought the place. It was only on the market for two weeks. Billy went looking for a quick sale. It was perfect timing for both of us."
"Makes sense," Vince said. "So," he asked, "you want to tell me about the door?"
"I'm actually more concerned about the mouse," she said. "Killing it and laying it out where I would see it the moment I stepped in the front door took more time and thought than writing on the door."
Funny, with him standing next to her the little mouse didn't look so menacing. She cleared her throat, trying to hold back the fear that was starting again. Sometimes Massey's memory was an almost tangible thing, letting her know that his clandestine and uninvited visit to her bedroom and its consequences may have happened six months ago, but still felt like yesterday.
Vince was looking at her as if she might break. She didn't want that.
Before he could ask another question, she asked, "When you did the yardwork, did you ever see anything unusual?"
"Like paint on the door."
"Most I've had to do is paint over graffiti on the outside walls. A while back someone was into gang signs, but there hasn't been any graffiti in the past year. Any chance your stalker followed you?"
"I just called the penitentiary that Massey's at. He hasn't been released."
"Could he have sent a friend?"
"I don't think he has any friends, but maybe he made one in jail," Tamara said. "I'll make a few calls later, find out if his cellmate or someone he palled around with has been paroled lately."
"You going to call the police?"
Tamara shook her head. For a moment, she wondered if Vince would call them. He seemed to be sizing her up. His expression didn't change so she couldn't tell if he thought she was incredibly brave for not alerting the authorities or undeniably stupid.
Tamara would have thought a client who didn't call the police was stupid.
One thing for sure, she was a better lawyer now because she empathized with her clients. Or she would, once she began practicing law again and had clients.
Vince stepped past her and entered the church. He glanced around. "Nothing else looks touched."
Considering the broken furniture and trash, his statement was almost comical, but Tamara knew from the walk-through of the building she and Billy had taken just a few days ago that broken furniture and debris were the only occupants of the no longer used church.
In a way, the old church was like Tamara, only she housed a broken dream, a broken relationship and broken spirit.
And if she could envision the old church as new and whole, then surely she could envision herself the same way.
Vince's whole life, he'd been turning around and cleaning up messes. Usually, his messes didn't look quite this good. Or this spooked. Taking that into consideration, Vince looked around for both a piece of cardboard and a section of newspaper.
Normally, it would have taken him just a second to dispose of the mouse. Instead, keeping in mind that Tamara watched his every move, he gently nudged the critter onto the cardboard, covered it with the newspaper and then took it outside.
When Vince finally returned, after fetching a flashlight from his truck, he studied her. She stood, looking pale, by the side of the front door. She chewed her bottom lip.
He hadn't noticed that habit when they'd walked down the aisle together at her sister's wedding. Maybe the nervous habit was new. Based on what she'd gone through the past six months, he could certainly understand. "You want me to take you home or do you want to walk around and make sure everything's where it should be?"
"I want to walk around."
Vince turned on the flashlight. It was dark enough inside for the light to make a difference. "This grand old dame has plenty of life in her yet. I'm glad someone's finally going to do something with her. You know, I've never been inside. I always did the outside yardwork while Lydia worked on the inside."
"This is only my second time seeing the inside. Billy brought me over once, but he needed to catch a plane back to Denver for some family thing, so we didn't see much."
"I'm surprised a lawyer wouldn't demand a closer inspection."
"Oh," Tamara said, "I know a bargain when I see one. I can recognize potential, too. Plus, I trust the home inspector."
"This is probably the oldest building left on Main Street. The bookstore next door is old, but nothing like this." Vince stood in the middle of the room. A decade of dust shimmered in the air. Windows, curtainless, were so murky the outdoor sun couldn't find a spot to peek in.
Tamara walked into the center of the room. Her face softened a bit as she looked around. Some of the spooked look went away as she studied her purchase.
The church's meeting room housed roughly fourteen pews. Seven on each side. Some were broken; the others looked fine except for dust. A table was at the front of the room and a pulpit was right behind it. Both could use a good cleaning, but other than that, everything looked in fine shape.
"As soon as I can, I'm setting up practice. This will be my secretary's office. I'll have a couch as well as tables here. I'll add bookcases. I'll have a table set up with coffee and the daily newspaper. I'll put pictures on the wall showing pleased clients."
"This room's big enough," he agreed. "You could almost retexture and build the bookcases right into the walls."
Knowing he might regret what he was about to do, Vince reached into his back pocket and took out his wallet. Then, he withdrew a business card and handed it to her.
She looked at his uniform with Konrad Construction embroidered on his left pocket. Then she looked again at the card. "You work on the side as a handyman and a lawn man?" she asked after looking the card over.
"I started at age ten mowing lawns. Lydia hired me when I was about thirteen. She had me do more than yards. She had me fixing fences and building sheds. We even redid the sidewalk in front of her house one year. I think she's to blame for my career choice. She's definitely to blame for my side job."
"I'll take this into consideration," Tamara said, sliding his card into her purse. Stepping over what looked to be a leg from one of the pews, she headed for a door to the right of the front table. It led to an empty room.
"What could this room have been?" she asked.
"It's probably where the church shared their meals. Maybe it doubled as a classroom."
She raised an eyebrow. "You attend church?"
"No, but I've helped build one. I do know that potlucks are a given and that there's never enough classroom space."