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"Geez, Mac, how do you stand all this?" Stacy Green sniffed, wrinkling her nose at the dust she had stirred as she helped sort stacks of old documents and maps that looked like they hadn't been touched in years. "I know you said your dad really let the place go over the last couple of years, but it's going to take you decades to get this all cleaned up."
In the process of changing the seasonal display in the shop's bow window from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Mackenzie Sloan said, "Bite your tongue. It's not that bad."
"Yeah, right." Stacy snorted. "And I'm the Queen Mother."
"I'm making progress," she insisted, but as she looked around at the antique bookstore her father had left her when he died unexpectedly three months ago, Mackenzie had to admit that Stacy was right. The place was a mess. In spite of the fact that she'd been cleaning and trying to organize the shop since the day after her father's funeral, it was still little more than barely controlled chaos.
Guilt tugged at her, bringing the sting of tears to her eyes. "I should have come home more often—"
"Don't you dare blame yourself!" Stacy, her oldest friend and fiercest protector, immediately jumped to her defense. "You were working a crazy schedule and spending every spare moment on your master's. Not to mention trying to have a life with a man you loved! When would you have come home? Between two and three in the morning? You were in California, for God's sake, not across the street!"
"I know," she sighed. "That's why Dad came to see me instead. And he acted like everything was fine. I didn't have a clue he wassick."
"He didn't want you to know, Mac. You would have quit school and come home and he would have hated that. You were so close to finishing. He didn't want you to give that up for him."
"And the irony of it is, Hugh and I broke up and I came home anyway," she said with a grimace of a smile.
"After you got your master's," Stacy pointed out.
"True," she agreed. But by then, it had been too late for her father. "At least Dad died knowing I was able to finish school." Shaking off her sadness, she forced a smile. "He was a great dad. And in spite of the condition of the shop, he left me a business I love."
"I'm just worried you're working yourself to death," Stacy said, frowning. "I hardly see you anymore. You're working night and day. I bet you don't even remember the last time you had a date."
"There are plenty of men in my life—"
"Oh, really? Name one."
"Lincoln… Washington… Stonewall Jackson…"
Stacy gave her a reproving look. "Cute, smarty-pants. This is serious. I'm concerned."
"You need to let me introduce you to Baxter Townsend. If I wasn't married and crazy about my lover boy—"
"Not to mention seven months pregnant," Mackenzie said dryly, grinning as she patted her friend's extended tummy. "Or are you forgetting about my goddaughter?"
A tender smile curved Stacy's mouth as she placed a hand over her stomach. "How could I forget her? The little stinker kicks me all night long. I think she's going to be a soccer player."
"Then she'll have to get that gene from John. You haven't got an athletic bone in your body."
Grimacing, Stacy grinned. "Too sweaty. But you like sports. You and Baxter would get along great. He played tennis in college."
"He's never been married," she added, "and makes a ton of money. He's a—"
"At least meet him. You two are perfect for each other."
Mackenzie rolled her eyes. The last man Stacy had claimed was perfect for her and had actually introduced her to had turned about to be an alcoholic with a temper. "Do I need to remind you of Gus Dole?"
Stacy had the grace to wince. "Ouch! Okay, so I screwed up with Gus. And now that I think about it, you probably wouldn't be crazy about Baxter—he can be kind of pompous. But you're fading away in this shop, turning to dust just like your father's books and old maps. You've got to get out of here!"
"I do," she argued. "I go somewhere nearly every weekend."
"To memorabilia shows." Stacy sniffed. "Where you meet dusty old men who are pushing eighty and only interested in one thing—buying something that belonged to Washington or Jefferson or God knows who else. Dammit, Mac, you're twenty-eight years old! When your father left you the business, he didn't intend for you to bury yourself in it."
"Maybe not," she agreed. "But you said yourself this place is a mess. Can you think of any man you know who would want to take on this and me? He'd have to be crazy."
"Not crazy," Stacy retorted, grinning. "Just a confident, good-looking hunk who likes to read about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams instead of girly magazines. How hard can that be to find?"
"Yeah, right." Mackenzie laughed. "When you find him, let me know."
The door to the shop opened then, and, as always, a John Philip Sousa march began to softly play throughout the shop and apartment upstairs. As the music grew progressively louder, Mackenzie, as always, laughed.
John Philip Sousa had been born in Washington, D.C., but that wasn't the only reason her father had chosen a Sousa march for the musical alarm he'd installed years ago. He'd had a tendency to get caught up in his work and lose track of what was going on around him and he'd needed something to jar him back to attention when someone walked through the front door. Even now, in her mind's eye, she could see him jump as the cymbals crashed loudly, reminding him he had a customer.
Beside her, Stacy glanced at the customer who strolled in, only to immediately smile with quick interest. "Oh, goodness, what do we have here? I think I'm in love."
"Stop that!" Mackenzie hissed as her own eyes roamed over the customer who looked like something out of one of her fantasies. Tall, dark and handsome— there was no other way to describe him. With dimples that framed either side of his mouth and a boyish glint in his green eyes, he had trouble written all over him. Mackenzie took one look at that long, lean body and fantastic face and forgot to breathe.
Stacy, on the other hand, had no such trouble. "Well, hello," she said with a grin. "Aren't you the cutest thing? I'll bet you're a history major, aren't you?"
Caught off guard, he laughed. "As a matter of fact, I am."
"And you're a Civil War buff."
"Stacy," Mackenzie warned.
"I'm just asking," she said innocently.
"I've been known to spend days at Gettysburg studying strategy," he admitted. "Is that a problem?"
"Not at all," Stacy said before Mackenzie could say aword. "There's just something about history majors—"
Shooting her friend a quelling glance, Mackenzie said, "Is there something in particular you were looking for or would you just like to look around?"
"I'll look around," he said with a wicked grin and a wink at Stacy. "Thanks."
"Civil War books and maps are upstairs," Mackenzie told him. "Just let me know if you need some help."
"You'll be the first person I call," he promised and headed up the stairs.
The second he was out of sight, Mackenzie whirled on Stacy. "What are you doing?"
"Just having a little fun." She chuckled. "And you should, too. An honest-to-goodness hunk just walked through the door and what do you do? Treat him just like one of your regular customers. You haven't had anyone under sixty-five walk through that door since your dad died. What were you thinking?!"
"He's a customer—"
"No! He's a good-looking man who doesn't happen to have a ring on his finger, in case you didn't notice."
She'd noticed, all right, but she would have cut out her tongue before she admitted it. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Bull!" Stacy laughed. "Tell that to someone who hasn't known you since you were four. But I'm not going to harass you," she added with a grin. "I'm meeting John for dinner, so I've got to go." Giving her a quick hug, she headed for the door. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
Laughing, she disappeared out the door with a teasing wave.
Five seconds later, Mackenzie heard a step on the stairs and whirled to find the "hunk," as Stacy described him, standing on the landing. Mortified, she could have sunk right through the floor. Had he heard what Stacy said?
Mackenzie only had to see the glint of humor in his eyes to know that he'd heard every word. She was, she decided, going to hang Stacy by her ears the next time she saw her.
Heat climbing in her cheeks, she lifted her chin and met his gaze head-on. "Did you see anything you like?"
His lips twitched. "That depends. For the right price, I could take just about everything in your shop home with me."
Studying him through narrowed blue eyes, she told herself he surely wasn't including her in "everything." But there was something about the man's confidence that told her there was little he wouldn't dare.
"What, in particular, were you interested in?"
He shrugged. "Oh, I don't know. Let's start small. I noticed you had a framed letter from one of the soldiers at Valley Forge. What's the price tag on that?"
"You won't like it."
She watched as he literally and figuratively rolled up his sleeves and braced himself. "Try me."
"What?! That's outrageous!"
"For an original piece of American history?" she scoffed. "I don't think so. I can get twice that much on eBay."
"eBay? Bite your tongue!"
His reaction didn't surprise her. Many serious collectors didn't believe in buying anything they couldn't see and examine before money exchanged hands. "I have to make a sale where I can. If you're not interested—"
Not fooled by her ploy, he grinned. "You're damn good at this."
"I come from a long line of horse traders," she said, "and I have a feeling you do, too."
"I'm Irish," he said simply. "It's in the blood. So how about a trade?"
Wary, she frowned. "What kind of trade?"
For an answer, he pulled out a yellowed, folded piece of paper in a sealed Ziploc bag. "Just a little something I picked up years ago that you might be interested in," he told her casually.
Curiosity threatening to get the best of her, Mackenzie just barely resisted the urge to reach for it. "If you're wanting to trade even-steven," she warned, "you need to know that I don't usually do that. You'd have to offer something pretty phenomenal for me to agree to an equal trade."
Amused, he said, "You're assuming your letter is more valuable than my map."
Mackenzie's ears perked up at that. She loved maps—and so did her customers—but she had no intention of letting him know that. "A map, huh? I don't know about that. Most of my customers are more interested in first edition books."
Not the least bit worried, he held the Ziploc bag out to her. "You might want to look at it before you make a decision," he told her. "It's a map of Gettysburg hand-drawn by General Lee. There are also notes in the margin containing his field strategy."
Already reaching for it, Mackenzie looked up sharply.
"This is the General's Map?"
A cool smile touched his lips. "So you've heard of it."
Heard of it? Of course she'd heard of it! Who hadn't? It had disappeared soon after the Battle of Gettysburg and hadn't been seen since. There'd been rumors that it had been owned over the years by everyone from P. T. Barnum to the Rockefellers to a Saudi prince who was a Civil War collector. If the map was authentic, how had it ended up in the hands of the man before her?
"Go ahead," he said when she gave him a wary look. "Take a look at it. Tell me what you think. I already know what it's worth, of course. I'm wondering if you do."
Another dealer might have been insulted by his words, but Mackenzie didn't need to defend herself to anyone. Her master's was in American history, and she'd worked in the business of buying antique documents and rare books for more than half her life. If the map was genuine, there was no doubt that it would be worth a small fortune.
Questions—and doubts—tugging at her, she took the map and moved to the reading table that was situated in front of the fireplace. Armed with the magnifying glass she carried on a cord around her neck, she carefully pulled the map out of the Ziploc and unfolded it under the light in the center of the table. The paper was yellowed with age, the bold, scrawled notes in the margin still legible despite the fact that the map was, reportedly, nearly a hundred and fifty years old.
Mackenzie loved old maps, but she knew better than most that they weren't always what they appeared to be. Forgery was a serious problem in her business… and so was theft.
"Where did you say you got this?" she asked casually as she put her magnifying glass to the map.
"I didn't," he said just as casually. "It belonged to a friend of mine. He's had a hell of a lot of bad luck lately—he got divorced, then lost his job when the company he worked for shipped out to India. Last week, he lost his house."
"So he was desperate and sold a family heirloom," she concluded. "Or was he a collector? Maybe I know him."
"A collector?" he scoffed, laughing shortly. "Not hardly. He's into motorcycles and NASCAR. His grandfather left him the map years ago—he was just hanging on to it for a rainy day. He doesn't even have money for an apartment. It's not just raining—it's a damn hurricane."
"I see." Continuing to examine the map, she saw, all right, more than he wanted her to. His story had lie written all over it and didn't make a bit of sense. If the real owner had been saving it for a rainy day, the last thing he would have done was sell it to a friend when he was in desperate straits. Instead, he would have taken it to Sotheby's or another high-dollar auction house that would have advertised it and gotten him a fortune for the sale.