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"We have a mission for you, Callie."
The owner of Finders Inc. had a reputation for directness. Callie met Shelby Kincaid-Austen's scrutiny head-on and forced herself not to flinch at the flicker of compassion she glimpsed in the other woman's eyes.
"Great. I was hoping you'd have something for me." Since Shelby didn't ask about the time she'd taken off, Callie allowed herself to relax just a little.
"I'm assuming you have no preference about location?"
"As long as it's not Australia again. I'm really tired of the Outback, mate."
"I'm sorry that one took so long." Shelby nodded, but her face remained neutral. "I only agreed to assign it to you because you said you needed something that would keep you out of the country for a while."
Callie noted Shelby's pause, meant to allow her the opportunity to discuss what had happened to cause that request. Callie remained silent, unmoving. After a moment Shelby shrugged, continued.
"You're one of the best locators we have so this assignment shouldn't be too difficult."
"None of them start out that way." Callie leaned forward. "What should I know?"
"Finders Inc. has been hired to locate a man named Josiah Harpnell as quickly as we can. He's the recipient of a substantial legacy. There are certain papers that require his signature--legal technicalities but necessary nonetheless. Though several messages have been forwarded to Mr. Harpnell's last known address, he has not responded to any of them."
"Messages--so you didn't talk to him? I'm guessing that means he has no access to a phone. Any idea where he is now?"
"Well, that's pinpointing it." Callie grimaced. "Fromthe front burner of the Outback to the freezer of Alaska. What more could a girl want?"
Quite a lot, actually. But since it was highly unlikely she'd ever get back the one thing she longed for, Callie focused on business and Shelby.
"I know it's not much to go on. It's a big area and our Intel is sketchy at best."
Shelby leaned her elbows on her desk, tented her fingers.
"From what we understand, Mr. Harpnell lives in the wilds, off the land--by choice. The last mailing address we had for him is in Ketchikan but his current physical location isn't certain and you may need to change destinations along the way. If you can be ready in two days, I'll arrange passage for you. A friend of mine is cruising up the coast and has agreed to take you."
"Sail?" That was new.
"I'll explain in a minute but let me say now that your journey north will give us time to update our information. Tomorrow you can visit the estate, learn exactly what's at stake."
Late September hardly seemed the time to sail north, though Callie suddenly remembered Max had once said sailing the Inside Passage in the fall was--
Like a shutter she clicked those thoughts out of her mind.
"I can't tell you much more until research has finished their part. Once you're in Ketchikan, you'll be in a better position to decide the next step for yourself. The important thing is to find this man and get his signature on the documents."
It sounded fairly straightforward. Callie nodded. "Okay, I'll do it."
"You may need some kind of cover story. I'd thought perhaps you could start out as if you're a tourist, maybe an Aussie backpacker. You've picked up the accent like a native, better than anyone I've ever seen, so you should be able to ask a lot of questions about the area without being suspect."
"If this Harpnell fellow isn't there, you want me to keep following the trail, right?"
"It's urgent that we locate him, Callie, and soon. If something should happen to him before the papers are signed, since he has no legal heir, the government will take over his estate. A lot of historical artifacts in that house will be sold off for a pittance."
Shelby stared at the file in her hand, then lifted her gaze to center on Callie.
"Understand that Harpnell doesn't have to come back. Once the paperwork is in place, he can assign someone to look after things or dispose of them as he wishes. Apparently that's what his half brother intended. He's the one who left him the place and everything in it."
"Is there a Mrs. Harpnell?"
"Josiah was married briefly many years ago but they divorced a year later. She had a child from an earlier marriage but Josiah never adopted him so the child has no legal standing with the courts as far as we know."
"Okay." Callie rose, grabbed her bag and headed for the door. "I'll get down to the briefing room and take a look at the file. The estate info is in it?"
"All the details we have are there. There's just one more thing." Shelby's voice brimmed with warning.
"We have reason to believe that someone else knows about this inheritance and that they will make an attempt to somehow acquire it. You could experience some danger. Briefing will relate the problems two other agencies have experienced so far, but I'll tell you this, there have been several unusual occurrences."
Callie understood what she meant. Someone was trying to upset the apple cart. Money did that to people.
"That's why you want your friend to get me up there via sailboat, I'm assuming."
"Yes." Shelby nodded, her expression serious. "Ordinarily we'd attempt to get his signature by mail, but that's already been tried--and failed. Miserably. These problems are the reason we need you to hand carry the necessary documents and bring them back. As a notary you're licensed to witness Mr. Harpnell's signature, which will satisfy the legal requirements. That's another reason why I chose you."
"We want those documents back here as soon as possible so we can file them with the court, Callie."
"Why the rush?" she mused aloud. "There's no time limit is there?"
Daniel McCullough, CEO of Finders Inc., shoved open Shelby's door and stepped into the room, his smile huge.
"About time you got back to this country, kiddo." He wrapped Callie in a bear hug, then tapped the end of her nose before grinning at Shelby. "I heard the last question--let me answer." He turned back to Callie.
"Before the case was brought to our attention, the lawyers tried several other locators--with no success. In fact, several people were hurt in the process. They came to us because of our reputation for completing every case, and because time is running out. We must have the papers signed within two weeks, or the government becomes the administrator of the estate to dispose of at its discretion."
"And you don't think they're up to it or what?" The inflection in Daniel's voice told Callie the story was not complete.
"Let us just say we've learned that the person who would be handling this estate as the government's representative has been approached to disperse the historical and very rare artifacts to purchasers who have no interest in preserving our country's heritage."
"Not only would that be a great loss," Shelby added,
"but it goes against everything the owner of the estate wanted, and that's not even mentioning that the money would be wasted. The estate is quite large as you'll see when you visit it. Management fees would eat it up."
"Okay, then. Good to know." Callie turned to leave.
"I'll get to work on Josiah's background."
"In a minute."
The worry threading through Shelby's voice drew her attention. She faced the other woman, schooling her features to conceal any emotion. She was good at that.
"I'm worried about you, Callie. You're so thin and pale. You're sure you want to do this?"
"I'm sure. And I'm fine. See you." Callie walked out of Shelby's office and found Daniel had followed her. He matched his step to hers.
"I wouldn't say you look good, Callie, but you look better than the last time you were in."
"So do you." She tilted her head, winked. "Three months of marriage must agree with you. I hear Samantha turned down a promotion. She's got to be really happy being your wife to willingly give up her dream job."
"I hope she's happy." Daniel's cheeks darkened in embarrassment. "But turning down that promotion was totally her choice. I won't say I'm not glad, though. We never expected to start a family so soon after we married--we especially didn't expect to parent twins-- but we're both glad about it."
"Twins?" Callie grinned, delighted that the couple had been so blessed, though a little hidden nerve in her heart renewed its persistent throb. "Sam says she's had enough fieldwork for a while. She comes into the office to help with training but that will probably end in a few months. She's already finding the pregnancy very tiring." He paused, stopped Callie from entering the elevator by placing his hand on her wrist. His eyes darkened, grew sad. "I'm sorry if I'm hurting you by telling you this, Callie."
"Of course you're not hurting me. I'm happy for you both." She smiled to show she meant it, shielding the ache she was afraid would never go away.
"Thank you." But the question remained in his eyes.
"Look, Daniel, things happen, change. That's the way life is. I really am happy for both of you." She met his stare and held it, knowing he'd see beyond her mask if she let him. "Bad things happened, but I have to get on with living. This case will give me the perfect opportunity to start over."
"I guess. If that's what you want." His amber eyes peered through the black-rimmed glasses, a reprimand lurking in their depths. "You do know Max has contacted me. Several times. I told him what you said, but I felt like a heel doing it." He touched her arm. "You have to talk to him yourself, Callie."
"We did talk. Too much." She shook her head. "I don't have anything to say that Max Chambers wants to hear. Anyway, it's too late for talking. The past is over, finished."
"Who are you trying to convince, sweetie? Me, or you?" Daniel bent, brushed her cheek with a brotherly kiss. "Don't be so hard on yourself. Keep depending on God. He'll work it out."
"Yeah." Like God had done so much for her already.
Callie reached up and hugged him. "That's for you to pass on to Sam. Tell her--tell her to take care. And that I love her."
"I will." He stood watching as she stepped into the elevator, a frown disturbing his handsome features.
Well, why wouldn't he frown? He and Max had been good friends. And she'd come between them.
Memories of that painful era threatened to burst through Callie's fragile defenses and explode her thinly held self-control. Her defenses weren't quite as strong as she wanted. Yet.
Determined no one would see her weaken, she stepped out of the elevator and slipped into a nearby ladies' room where she splashed cold water on her face until she'd regained her composure. Once she was centered and in control again she made her way to the briefing room.
After absorbing a minutiae of details about Josiah Harpnell, Callie glanced up from her file, found Daniel lounging in the doorway, watching her.
"About what I expected. The estate is massive. Less detail on Josiah than usual, but then this case is different for Finders Inc., isn't it?"
"Every case is different, but we usually have more to go on than what we've been able to give you." He sank down onto a stool opposite her. "Callie, I have to tell Max something. He's just called again, desperate to get in touch with you."
And she knew exactly why. "Maybe you don't believe me but he's out of his mind with worry, Callie. He cares about you."
She couldn't say anything, simply sat staring at her hands, waiting.
"He's my friend, honey. Max is the closest thing I've had to a brother since Grant died." His voice begged her to reconsider. "I can't be your go-between anymore. I've got to tell him the truth. The two of you need to talk this out."
Daniel didn't know it but there was nothing for them to talk about. He wouldn't understand that Max was only trying to do the right thing, to adhere to those principles he clung to so strongly. Daniel wouldn't understand that she couldn't bear to go back, to look into those eyes and see what lay there--the condemnation he never spoke of.