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By Dora Hiers
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2011 Dora Hiers
All rights reserved.
The mystery man with haunted eyes was back.
Chelsea Hammond placed the lawn chairs next to the cooler in the trunk, but kept her eyes on the man. He stood alone, farther up the hill, tucked under some towering maple trees. Far enough away that she couldn't make out all his features, but close enough for Chelsea to glimpse his pain. The slight slumping of his expansive shoulders; the hands clenched at his sides; the haunted eyes that stared out into the distance when he removed his sunglasses; the lips set in a straight, hard line.
And the words "Deputy U.S. Marshal" that blazed from the front of his polo shirt. It had taken her three years, but this year she determined to talk to him, to rid her dreams of those haunted eyes. To hear his story. To offer closure if his version somehow connected to hers.
Chelsea closed the trunk of the old Cadillac and turned to her in-laws. "There you go, Henry. You're all set."
"Thank you, dear. We appreciate you lugging those lawn chairs for us." Henry opened the door for his wife while she wrestled to get into the car, sweat beading on her upper lip. Henry and Stella always made a day of it when they visited their two sons.
"You're welcome. You take it easy going home." Chelsea peered overhead at the steely gray clouds, swirling into angry puffs. "Looks like a storm is brewing."
Henry followed her gaze, and then turned to look at her. "Oh, we will, dear. We don't have far to go. Will we see you next year?"
Her stomach lurched. She couldn't let Doug's elderly parents face this day alone. Besides, where else would she be on the anniversary of her husband's death? "Same time, same place, Henry." Chelsea smiled and leaned into the car to give Stella a peck on her moist cheek. "Bye, Stella."
Chelsea straightened and Henry wrapped his frail arms around her for a hug. "Glad to see you with a smile on your face this year."
She slipped away from his embrace, blinking, until Henry started the engine. The giant sedan glided away, their hands flapping through the open windows. She lifted her hand in return, the smile still firmly planted across her lips. Henry was right. This was the first year she hadn't cried on his shoulder.
Thunder rumbled across the sky, and she jumped, feeling the echo vibrate against the ground. Fat raindrops splashed against her bare legs.
She glanced up the hill. The mystery man was gone.
Disappointment sliced through her chest. Maybe next year.
Chelsea hurried towards her truck and dived in through the open door. Now she wished she'd taken the time to change from her sundress into jeans after the graduation ceremony this morning.
She exited the memorial gardens and headed south on the interstate towards Charlotte. Dark gray clouds dumped rain from the sky, but even the stormy skies couldn't dampen her spirits. Her sunglasses and an unopened tissue box sat on the seat next to her. She dared a glance in the rear-view mirror. Nope. Not bloodshot. Wonder blossomed in her chest.
Life was turning around. Finally.
She hunched forward and strained to see, the windshield wipers swishing at their maximum speed, her white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. She slowed down to exit the interstate and released a pent- up breath.
She pulled to a stop in front of the barn and cut the engine. Two streaks of lightning pierced the sky, snapping into electrical balls a few feet away. She sucked in a deep breath and pulled the keys from the ignition, chuckling at her shaky hands.
Thunder couldn't be too far behind.
One-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. A long crack of thunder boomed through the silence, the ground trembling in its wake.
Whew. That was close.
Chelsea waited, peering through the rain pelting the windshield, feeling the truck sway with the heavy winds. She didn't want to go out in this, but she had to check on Molly. Kalyn, her live-in housekeeper, had fed the fawn earlier but Chelsea wanted to settle her in for the night. Besides, this rain didn't appear to be lessening. She couldn't stay in the truck all night.
She glanced to the passenger seat, deciding to leave her purse in the truck for now. She reached under the seat for the umbrella. She couldn't use it now, but maybe the rain would dwindle enough where she could use it from the barn to the house. She slipped her sandals off. No need to ruin them.
Jerking the door open, she bolted for the barn, gripping her sundress, the wind all but whipping it over her head. Good thing it was just her and Kalyn out here.
She reached the barn and screeched to a halt, digging toes in the wet grass. The door stood slightly ajar. Alarm snaked up and down Chelsea's spine. Hadn't she closed it when she left this morning? She knew she had. She'd been worried about Molly roaming around, so she'd locked her up in a stall. A baby deer without a mama was easy prey.
Chelsea shook her head. Enough. Wondering wasn't keeping her dry. She slid the barn door open the rest of the way and stepped inside. Mustiness and humidity slammed her in the face, along with the comfortable smells of leather and hay. Chelsea flipped on the light switch, but nothing happened.
She squeezed back the apprehension that rippled through her chest. The storm had clearly knocked out the power; she'd seen the fireballs.
Water rolled down the middle of her back. She shook her head, bouncing wet curls to get some of the water off, and then gathered long hair in her hands and squeezed. That would have to do until she got inside where she had access to a dry towel. She shivered and rubbed her upper arms to generate some warmth.
Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. OK, so the barn smelled normal, but something didn't feel right. Chelsea scanned the cool interior. The riding lawn mower and a few garden tools. Some extra straw for Molly's stall. Looked about the same as it did every other day.
She was acting like a baby. She needed to get over it. Kalyn had probably come out to feed Molly, and then left the door open. End of story.
Chelsea gritted her teeth and pushed shoulders back. She wasn't scared. She couldn't be. When Journey's End opened next week, a bunch of teenagers would look to her as a role model for strength and courage. Teenagers could sense cowardice. They wouldn't see it in her. No way.
Rain pummeled the barn roof. The wind howled, screaming through the open door of the barn and hurling straw pieces from one wall to the other. Another deafening crack of thunder boomed outside. She jumped, a nervous giggle escaping from her throat.
So, maybe she was just a little scared. She'd feel better if she were inside the house sipping a cup of coffee. Something to warm up her insides.
She would check on Molly. Get inside and dry off. Then whip up the latest recipe for apple pie that she'd been dying to try. Oh yeah. She grinned. Sounded good.
With quick steps, she headed towards Molly's stall and pulled the latch to open the gate.
A streak of lightning flashed from the open door, lighting up the inside of the barn, and she turned to look outside. Blinded, Chelsea blinked and waited for her eyes to readjust, expecting to see Molly cowering in the corner.
But she didn't. Molly snuggled comfortably next to something.
Chelsea gasped, hearing the wild pounding of her pulse over the rain hammering on the roof.
A pencil-thin teenager scrambled to his knees, grabbing something from the straw next to him. Drool oozed from his open mouth, and straw poked out of his black hair. With sleepy brown eyes, he crouched on one knee and brandished a pitch fork at her like it was a rifle. "Don't co-come any cl-closer."
Chelsea did what any rational female would have done under the circumstances.
She screamed and threw hands in the air, the umbrella banging against her forearm.
He frowned and shook his head. "I ... I'm not go-going to hurt you, lady." Squeaky Voice said. He brushed the lone tear sliding down one cheek with his shirt sleeve. "I wouldn't."
"I believe you." Chelsea took a step closer. The umbrella zinged open. Whoosh.
Chelsea rolled her gaze to the open umbrella and then back to the teenager.
Surprise distorted Squeaky Voice's face until he dropped the pitchfork to the straw and doubled over, laughing. He laughed like he couldn't imagine a tomorrow, like he couldn't bear to look at yesterday, like he didn't want to face today. Tears streamed down his face.
She knew that laugh. Recognized the tears.
She needed to get him inside and assess the situation. She lowered her hands, slow and easy, and tossed the umbrella into the corner of the stall. She held out a hand with more confidence than she felt. "I'm Chelsea Hammond. Welcome to Journey's End."
He waited a few beats before standing up to his full six foot plus height. In what seemed like slow motion, his hand slid into hers. "I'm Jacob Carpocelli."
Her stomach threatened to give up the hamburger she had devoured on the drive home. The stall started to spin. She reached out with a hand to steady herself against the door. Maybe she was the one who would need medical attention. "Did you say Jacob Carpocelli?"
He nodded while his face blanched, almost like he didn't want to be known by his last name. She could understand that. Jacob tugged his hand away from her wet, slimy one and stepped back. "Jacob's my real name, but I just go by Jake."
"Jake?" Was that harsh whisper her voice?
Tony Carpocelli's son?
God, why would you do this to me?
OK. Maybe she wasn't so ready for closure after all.
* * *
It wasn't too late to turn around.
Yeah, well, maybe it wasn't too late to turn around, but he wouldn't have a job to turn around to. His boss had made that clear.
Trey Colten spotted the end of the snaking road and blew out a long breath. "Looks like we're here. I don't see any signs for the shelter, but this is the right address."
Renner Crossman, his partner, glanced up from studying the case file and looked at him, sympathy oozing from his face. "Sorry about what happened with the chief, buddy."
"Yeah." Trey's hands clenched the steering wheel. He turned into the clearing used for parking, pulling the Suburban to a stop in front of a house tucked deep in the middle of a forest. Hundreds of chirping birds drowned out any noise that might otherwise have filtered through the trees, like the neighbor's dog from two miles back that ran back and forth barking at their car. Good ol' Nowhere, USA.
The chugging of a lawn mower sounded nearby although they couldn't see it.
Trey's gut churned, and he reached in the center console for his roll of antacids, popping one into his mouth with a loud sigh. "Tell me again how Carpocelli's kid found this place."
"Chelsea Hammond's brother."
"Yeah, indirectly. It says here that" — Renner flipped the page in the folder to read the notes — "Chelsea's brother is the resource officer at Jake's school."
"Chelsea's brother sent him here?" Trey frowned. What kind of brother would send trouble to his sister in the form of Jake Carpocelli? Trey might go looking for her brother when he got back to Raleigh. Sit down and have a friendly little chat with him. Instruct him on the dos and don'ts of brotherhood. Do not send a kid related to the mob to your sister's house.
"No. Her brother didn't send him here."
Trey rolled his eyes and opened his door, his legs not cooperating. "So if Chelsea's brother didn't send Jake ..."
"Jake was chatting with the resource officer in his office. The officer was called out for a fight."
"Let me guess. He left Jake sitting in his office while he took care of business?"
"Yep. Chelsea's advertising fliers were on his desk."
"Ah. Pretty slick kid." Trey still wanted that chat with the brother. It was due to his negligence that Carpocelli's kid had landed here. That burned his gut. He popped another antacid in his mouth before stuffing the roll in his pocket.
Renner grinned and opened his door wide. "Let's go, cowboy. Home sweet home."
Trey glared at his partner. Renner's joking manner only set him further on edge. Didn't he know who they were up against? Tony Carpocelli? He wouldn't put anything past that scum. His drug money would buy anything. Or anybody. Trey knew not to trust Carpocelli, even if Carpocelli was locked up, but nobody else seemed inclined to take Trey seriously.
"Maybe it's time for a new partner."
Renner scoffed. "Yeah, right. Nobody else will put up with you like I do."
"I think it's the other way around."
Renner threw his head back and laughed. "Could be. But after your conversation with the chief this morning, I don't think that's happening anytime soon."
Trey gritted his teeth and forced his legs out of the car. "Don't remind me. I should have tendered my resignation. While I still had a job."
Renner walked around the car to join him, his dark eyebrows raised. "Meaning you won't have one after this is over?"
"You never know," Trey mumbled, looking away from the troubled eyes of his partner to scan the yard.
Two other agents were staged at vantage points around the perimeter, but this area was his worry. He wanted to make sure he knew what he was up against before trouble came knocking. And he was fairly sure it would. It was just a matter of time.
His eyes settled on the wrap-around front porch. Water gurgled softly down the side of a ceramic pot. Giant green ferns swayed gently in the breeze. Rocking chairs, Adirondacks and a swinging bench beckoned visitors to step onto the porch, to relax and embrace the solitude, the serenity.
He took a deep breath, appreciating the scent of freshly mowed grass.
This place whispered peace, quiet, and tranquility. He could see how it would be a beacon to a troubled soul. His lips twisted in a grimace. Too bad it had to attract the likes of Carpocelli's son.
Most of the time Trey liked kids. But this was Carpocelli's son. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that the chief had given him responsibility for the widow.
Trey licked his dry lips.
"Nervous, buddy?" Renner said.
Trey shot him another annoyed glance. "Shove it, Renner."
His gaze jerked back to the front door. Their trip from Raleigh had taken a little over two hours, but now it didn't seem nearly long enough. With his eyes focused on the front door, he took the first step and willed his mind to cooperate. His boots felt weighted down with mud. Renner's movement from behind forced him forward.
He licked his lips again. The widow Hammond would be standing in front of him in about four minutes.
Three years and he still wasn't ready for this. How could he explain the knot in his stomach that grew tighter every time he heard the name Hammond? Like a sucker punch to the belly that produced more pain with every blow.
He had considered quitting after the chief refused to take him off this assignment, even up until he got in the car today. Days like this, he didn't like his job. Where was the justice in all this?
He blinked and shook his head, hoping to clear his thoughts, to shake off this pathetic attitude. An attitude that could get him killed if he wasn't careful.
He slowed his steps further, glanced back at Renner. How could he explain to his partner the sudden, urgent desire to ... uh, take an extended vacation? Trey reached the end of the sidewalk and started up the steps. It wasn't too late. They could be in the Suburban and out of here before anybody knew different. But where would they —?
"Looking for Journey's End, gentlemen?"
That wasn't good. She already caught him off guard, and he hadn't even rung the doorbell. How was he ever going to focus on this assignment? He took a deep breath before turning around, hands fisted at his sides.
Renner pushed his back and propelled him forward, but Trey dug his heels in the ground a few feet away from the widow. He'd never seen her this close.
Chelsea Hammond's simple beauty knocked the breath out of his lungs. Curly auburn locks cascaded gently onto a cream-colored shirt, and faded jeans graced gentle curves. Her lips formed a slight smile, and freckles peeked out from under a hint of makeup. A fawn nestled at her side, enhancing her sweetness and gentle aura.
Panic rippled through his chest at the war going on between guilt and attraction. His memories — and he hated to admit — his dreams hadn't captured her essence. He wasn't sure what he expected, but it definitely wasn't the beauty standing in front of him.
Trey tipped his head forward in a slight nod. "Ma'am."
"Good afternoon, gentlemen. I'm Chelsea Hammond. Welcome to Journey's End." She extended her hand, graceful, poised.
And him? He needed to get his act together before he lost his job. Reaching out to shake her hand required all of Trey's willpower. "Trey Colten. Deputy U.S. Marshal." Trey flashed his badge briefly, as he always did.
She tugged her hand from his grasp. Heart racing, he studied her through hooded lids, not wanting his eyes to mirror his own thoughts but wanting, no, needing, to know hers.
Trey tilted his head sideways to introduce Renner, never taking his eyes off Chelsea's face. "And this is my partner, Renner Crossman."
Renner shook hands with Chelsea and flashed his badge.
"Please forgive me, but may I take a closer look at your badges?"
"Sure." Trey reached for Renner's badge and handed both to Chelsea for closer identification. "We appreciate your caution. You're tucked out here in the wilderness pretty far." An understatement for sure. Two miles from her nearest neighbor? The chief had mentioned Chelsea installed a security system specifically designed for the shelter. He made a mental note to ask her about that later.
Excerpted from Journey's End by Dora Hiers. Copyright © 2011 Dora Hiers. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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