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The drive across the mountains to the small town of Victory was uneventful and shorter than Walker had anticipated. The Babbitts had promised to call ahead and let Compton know that he was on his way, but he wasn't about to report in and take over his new assignment one second earlier than was absolutely necessary.
Assignment, ha! He felt like a naughty first grader being sent to stand in a corner.
As he turned onto the street he'd been looking for, a big white house with a wraparound porch came into view, bearing the numbers listed on the slip of paper in Walker's hand. It had royal blue shutters with a matching front door. It looked tidy and well kept; the yard was a profusion of multicolored flowers.
"Oh, jeez," he muttered along with some other more colorful expletives as he pulled over to the curb. "It looks like Beaver Cleaver's grandmother's house."
There was a slim young woman tending the flowers that grew along the walk that led to the house. She looked like someone out of an early fifties movie with her broad-brimmed hat and her fluffy floral-print dress. The whole scene looked like a throwback to another era, and it made Walker's stomach roll over in despair.
In a knee-jerk reaction, he pressed his foot down on the accelerator, and the car went speeding down the road. Procrastination wasn't normally a weakness he gave in to, but in this situation he felt it was justified. Humiliation was not something he enjoyed.
He spotted a small park and pulled over. He needed to gain some control, find a facade to hide behind. He'd be damned if he'd let the whole world see how irritated he was over being treated like a child, like a bad little boy.
He got out of the car and walked over to a bench near the center of the park. Sitting down, he stretched out his long legs, crossing them at the ankles. The level of his anger and frustration was so high, he didn't pay much attention to the figure approaching him. Why should he? he asked himself. He was in the land of the free and the home of the brave and in no danger from his enemies any longer. Not to mention the fact that he was in some rinky-dink town, where no one knew who he was or cared. There was no need to keep his guard up until he went to work again—if baby-sitting could be called work.
"Oh, no!" a high-pitched female voice exclaimed.
Walker turned his head to see a pint-sized woman, her arms loaded with twigs and tree branches, doing a slapstick balancing act as the tree parts teetered and slipped away from her one by one. She bent to pick up two and lost three more. Walker could see she was fighting a losing battle, and even as leery as he was of being of any assistance to anyone at that moment, he got grudgingly to his feet and ambled over to help her.
She was dancing about with her bundle of sticks, her back to Walker as he bent to pick up a few of the smaller twigs she'd lost. When he looked up, she was above him, tripping over her own feet.
"Oh, no," she cried out again. "Look out."
Of course, she fell on him. Walker was having that sort of day—and he hadn't any hope of having a better one for a long, long time. He should have stayed on the bench.
She was laughing.
"This is certainly an interesting way to meet someone," she said, giggling, disentangling her slim, shapely legs from around his neck. "But you look even grumpier now than you did over on the bench. Are you angry?"
Walker looked up and stared into the most unique face he'd ever encountered.
He wasn't sure if it was caused by her present state of agitation or if it was natural, but the roses in her cheeks matched the rosy blush of her lips, giving her a healthy, vibrant appearance. And for some strange reason that had nothing to do with the way she looked, he kept thinking that he knew who she was. He would have sworn on a Bible that he'd never seen her before, and yet she stirred something familiar deep inside him.
"You are angry, aren't you? If you're not, you really shouldn't frown like that, because it makes you look really mad," she said as if she were commenting on the weather. She'd been watching for a man who looked dark and sinister, but her intuition told her that this man wasn't the one.
"Angry? Me? Why should I be angry? I took the risk of being a gentleman and trying to help you out with your ... sticks here." He motioned to the twigs and branches scattered around them. "I guess I got what was coming to me."
"Oh, my. You really are an angry man. I thought so the moment I saw you sitting over there on the bench. I said to myself, 'Now, that looks like one very angry man to me.' And I was right," she said, getting to her feet. "I was going to steer clear of you and just leave you there to pout. I mean, it's not as if you're a friend of mine or anything, but you looked so unhappy. And while I was trying to make up my mind whether or not to talk to you, I lost my grip on my firewood and ... well, here I am talking to you."
Walker stared at her, wondering how she managed to talk so fast and get to her feet at the same time when there was nothing but air and a pretty face between her ears.
Out of nowhere a rush of vague mental images and a sharp awakening of long-forgotten emotions held Walker immobile. Memories of a summer love came to him as vividly and breathlessly as if he were experiencing them for the first time.
He looked up into eyes that were a warm chestnut brown, and even though he remembered sky blue, he felt the same prickling sensations tickle through his body and settle low in his pelvis. At fifteen he'd thought golden curls were the direct result of having been touched by the gods, but his fingers were actually itching to touch the raven hair that framed the heart-shaped face before him. Pale white skin, flawless and smooth to the point of appearing like a fine figurine's, eclipsed his memory of a golden California girl.
The pixielike woman standing beside him conjured up the same wild and overwhelming physical excitement that had turned his life inside out and upside down when he'd been a youth on the brink of manhood. He swallowed hard. He felt confused and off kilter, feelings he rarely encountered and didn't relish at all. Who was this person? he wondered.
"Why are you staring at me like that?" she asked.
He shook his head, trying to ignore the turmoil inside him. "You're standing on my hand."
"Oops." She removed her foot, and Walker flexed his fingers, attempting to get the circulation back. "You aren't by any chance a forest ranger?" she asked. She smiled down at Walker, merriment glimmering in her eyes.
"Do I look like a forest ranger?"
"Well," she said, stooping to retrieve her firewood, not looking at Walker. "If you weren't being so sarcastic, and if I used my imagination, I think you'd make a very handsome forest ranger. But as it is, no, you don't look like a forest ranger. On the other hand, I don't need one right now anyway, so it doesn't really matter, does it?"
Walker had a feeling that he should agree with everything she said, at least until someone showed up with a leash for her.
"What are you going to do with all the wood?" he asked, intrigued by the way her hair shimmered in the late afternoon sun, showing not a mixture of colors but a pure jet black.
"It's for my campfire. I only have the one apple tree in my yard, and I didn't want to cut off branches just to burn them. And I understand that there's less smoke if the wood is old and dried out a bit. So I hiked over here to get some."
Walker was sorry he asked. He pressed his lips together to keep from asking how far she'd hiked; why she needed a campfire if she had a backyard, which would logically lead one to believe that she had a front yard as well and a house of some sort in between the two; and how long it would take her keeper to discover that she'd given him the slip? He didn't want to know. He didn't want to have anything to do with this person—not with her or with the way she could wreak havoc with his body. If he had to be on an imposed leave of absence from the rest of the world, why couldn't he just be left alone?
"Thank you," she said as he handed her the last piece of tinder for her fire. She stood again, staggering a little to get her balance, grinding his other hand into the ground with the soft heel of her tennis shoe in the process. If she heard him groan in pain, she didn't let on. She looked as if she were about to leave him there, no apology offered, when suddenly she smiled at him and said, "I hope that whatever's bothering you goes away soon. I've always thought that life was like a series of transitions and that once you've gotten through one of these changing periods, your life evens out a little and is better for a while. At least until it's time for your life to change again."
Walker was amazed not only by her brash speech but by her sincerity. Did she really believe that he gave a damn what she thought? She obviously did, because she went on talking.
"But I've also thought that these times of growing and becoming a better person were always very painful. I hope yours doesn't last too long."
He didn't know what to say, so he just nodded, pretending to agree with her again. She smiled, and her chestnut-color eyes twinkled at him warmly, as if he were her oldest, dearest friend.
Walker watched her walk away until she reached the street, and then he turned his back on her. He felt a heaviness, a constriction in his chest, and he knew that she had somehow caused it with her crazy talk. Or maybe it wasn't so much what she said as the way she'd said it, as if she truly cared.
He shook his head, then wiggled his whole body, trying to shake off the eerie feeling she'd given him. If he were slightly less cynical, he might have been able to believe she was some sort of pixie or something, sent to give him hope in an hour of need. As it was he simply suspected that her brain was pickled.
When procrastination turned to outright insubordination, Walker's ingrained sense of duty and commitment compelled him to get into his car and drive back toward the Victorian nightmare of a house where his next assignment as a highly trained and experienced government agent awaited him.
He parked the car across the street, resigned to his fate. He saw that the woman in the puffy dress and big hat was still gardening. Didn't she have anything better to do? he wondered. And in that dress yet? She'd had the time to horticulture those flowers to within an inch of their lives by now, he decided.
He ground his molars together, steeling his determination as he got out of the car and raised the lid of the trunk to retrieve his suitcase.
It was then that a movement at one of the windows on the upper floor caught his attention. He grabbed at a slim thread of hope that the man hanging out the window frantically waving his arms like a lunatic was not the bodyguard, Compton. But the thread eluded him, and he automatically took on Compton's agitation.
He dropped his bag back into the trunk and slammed down the lid. He bolted across the street and glanced up at the window in time to see Compton cautioning him to stay cool and to look casual, motioning at the woman below.
Obviously Compton didn't want the woman upset. Walker could live with that. Screaming, hysterical women had a tendency to get on his nerves. The situation didn't appear to be particularly menacing at the moment, or Compton wouldn't have cautioned him. Still, Compton's manner was insistent.
Hearing his steps on the sidewalk, the woman turned.
"Afternoon," he said, smiling, hoping to distract her enough to keep her from noticing Compton at the upstairs window. He felt forced to say more and act unhurried. "Nice flowers."
"Thank you." The woman rearranged the elastic at the end of each puffy sleeve before she looked directly up at Walker, using one hand to keep her umbrellalike hat in place. "Are you a friend of Fred's," she asked with a deep, raspy voice that Walker found provocative and lusty.
She was blond with smooth loose curls hanging to her shoulders. Her face was narrow with high, prominent cheekbones, full, soft lips, and pale blue eyes that seemed too big for her face. She looked frail and feminine and, Walker supposed, appealing—if frail and feminine were his style, which they weren't.
"Ah, yes. I am," he answered, unsure whether she'd seen Compton's antics or not. He tried to ignore the open, speculative stare that she passed over every inch of his body.
"Fred's room is at the top of the stairs on the left," she said with a slow, cloying smile that made Walker feel strange and nervous. "Mine's directly across the hall."
Walker's face froze in a half-smile, and he nodded. "Thanks."
Dear Lord, why me? he asked as he pulled open the screen door and walked into the house, filing away for later use the facts that the porch floor creaked and the screen door squeaked.
"Walker? Up here. Quick," Compton said from the landing at the top of the stairs which were located directly across a large foyer from the front door. "I don't want her to see me."
Walker scanned the premises as he crossed to the stairs with a long, brisk stride. "Who?" he asked, seeing no one else around.
"Her. That ... that person out front."
Walker glanced over his shoulder at the woman on the sidewalk, who was indeed watching his ascent. When he reached the top step, Compton all but picked him up and threw him into the room on the left and quickly closed the door.
"What the hell took you so long?" he demanded. "You were supposed to be here two hours ago."
"I got hung up. What's the matter with you? What the hell is going on here, Compton?" Compton expelled a huge breath, and sagged back against the closed door. From his rear pocket he pulled a large white handkerchief and mopped his damp forehead with it as he spoke.
"She's been after me for weeks now. I didn't know what else to do but quit the job. I tried everything. But she just kept coming on to me and coming on ... She's dangerous," he said, distraught. "Walker, I can't tell you what I've been through."
With a disbelieving look Walker crossed to the window and looked down at the woman below. Her movements were graceful and elegant as she snipped dead blooms off the plants and pulled what few weeds grew up beside them.
"She does look pretty ferocious with those little garden snippers, Compton," he said facetiously. "Does she keep her Uzi under that hat?"
"Laugh, Walker." Compton was defensive and indignant. "Laugh all you want, but I'm the one who's leaving here. You're staying. By tomorrow afternoon you'll be laughing out the other side of your mouth."
Walker frowned, perplexed.
"Your report said she was being cooperative. And Fillmore's said she was a pleasant person. What's she been doing?"
"I said the Babbitt woman was being cooperative. That one down there is too cooperative, if you get my drift."
"I don't. Isn't that her there?"
"Her who?" Compton was getting more and more flustered by the minute. "There's four of them."
"What?" Walker exclaimed, confused and horrified at once.
"There are four women living in this house," Compton stated, exasperated. "The Babbitt woman runs this place. It's a boardinghouse. I can see those two old con artists didn't tell you any more than they told me when I signed on."
"Wait a second," Walker interrupted. "Is that Trudy Babbitt down there or not?"
"Not. That's Ruby."
"And she's hot to trot."
"It's more like trample you to death, but yeah, she's hot. Keep yourself moving when she's around, or she'll jump your bones so fast, it'll make your head swim."
"Well, where the hell is the Babbitt woman? She's the one you're supposed to be watching, Compton."
"That's true," Compton said. "But Trudy's nothing compared to that one."
"So? Where is she?"
"She's gone camping. If you'd gotten here when you were supposed to, you could have met her. Now you'll have to wait until tomorrow."
"Camping? For Pete's sake, Compton. Have you lost your mind?"
Compton shook his head, confident of his sanity.
"Come on, I'll show you."
Walker followed Compton down the hall, away from the front of the house, and through an open bedroom door at the end of the corridor.
Excerpted from Favors by Mary Kay McComas. Copyright © 1990 Mary Kay McComas. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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