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Love Under Suspicion
By Sondra Quinn
Swimming Kangaroo BooksCopyright © 2006 SONDRA QUINN
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDear Abby, How have you been? Things are going pretty well here, in fact, there's a chance I may be out as early as next week. Early release for good behavior. Ha! Ha! The grapevine has it that you've been keeping the family business alive and thriving. I'm looking forward to coming home and seeing what you've done. Also hear you've kept up with our old contacts and acquired some new ones. I knew I could count on you. Hope there will be a place for me in your new scheme of things. Ever lovingly yours, Joe
Sloane Jameson read the letter with barely a flicker of his cobalt blue eyes and slid it across the table to Connie. She picked it up with manicured fingertips and scanned the lines, her eyes snapping with lively interest. Then she handed the letter back to their supervisor.
"Well?" The supervisor invited comment.
"Suggestive, isn't it?" Sloane looked questioningly at Connie.
Connie pursed her lips, today painted a fire engine red. "I presume we've investigated her."
The supervisor tapped a folder at her elbow. "As you can see, her file is this thick. There's nothing we could really call evidence, but there's plenty of cause for suspicion."
Sloane pulled the folder over to himself and studied the cover photo. A fine-boned woman with reddish-blonde hair and sparkling green eyes smiled outat him, a wholesome-looking, girl-next-door type. The last person in the world you would expect to be involved with drugs. Sloane opened the folder and rifled through the sheath of papers inside. Then he shoved the folder back to his supervisor and cleared his throat. "Joe Tarleton is getting out?" There was a brittle component to his voice.
The supervisor looked pained. "Yes. Apparently he's been a model prisoner, and what with overcrowding ..." She spread her arms wide in a gesture of helplessness. "That is why you two are here."
"Yes?" Connie leaned forward, her eyes narrowing with interest.
"This may be our chance to get to the man in charge."
"Of the entire drug ring?" Sloane's voice had an edge on it. "We know that the drug ring Tarleton worked for supplies drugs all over Texas and the southwest, but we've never been able to pick up anybody but some two-bit dealers. Joe has been our biggest catch to date, and we believe that once he is released, he will return to his involvement with the gang."
"So you want us to trail Joe Tarleton?" Connie asked slowly.
"Not exactly. We'll put someone else on that. We want you to carry out a surveillance on his wife."
"His wife?" Sloane's eyes returned to the photo of Abby Tarleton.
"Actually his ex-wife," the supervisor allowed. "She divorced him soon after the trial. But our reports from prison indicate that Tarleton is still in love with his wife and plans to return to her when he is released. When he does, I want you two to already be in place. Your mission will be two-fold. First, you are to get any information you can about the leaders of this drug ring. And second, if there's any proof that Abby Tarleton is involved, you are to get it so we can nail her. So far she's managed to elude us. I want that to end with you two." The supervisor issued Connie and Sloane a challenging look.
Sloane and Connie took a long look at each other and then nodded. "Understood," they said simultaneously.
Abby Tarleton hung up the phone, nibbling discontentedly on her lower lip. For a moment she stared sightlessly out the kitchen window. Perhaps she should have told Ned no, he couldn't come over. Not now, not ever again. She didn't want him around, didn't want the contact with his friends, the constant reminders of a time of her life that she would just as soon forget. Drumming her long fingertips on the butcher-block table, Abby sighed. Whether she liked it or not, Ned was family, even if he was just her stepbrother. Family helped family when they were in trouble. He had helped her out years before, after her husband's arrest for drug dealing.
Shaking her head, Abby reflected wryly, "Yeah, and I've been repaying that debt ever since." She glanced at her son's bedroom door. He was starting to stir, but she ought to have just enough time to give the other side of the duplex a final inspection before the new tenants arrived. She stood up slowly and slipped outside to go next door.
As she stepped out, she braced herself against the onslaught of the Texas heat that was always a shock after being in the air-conditioned indoors. Squinting her eyes against the afternoon sun, she glanced across the street and froze, a cold chill gripping her despite the ninety-eight-degree weather.
The old red Nova was still there, its driver obscured by a newspaper, the license plate muddied beyond readability. He had been parked there for the past three weeks, and off and on, Abby had the impression that he was peering at her over the top of his paper. Once he had even followed her to the airport, but had dropped the tail as soon as she had driven through the gates. Abby stared at him, trying to discern any recognizable features, but his face remained well hidden. She wondered if she should call the police, but with a sigh, decided against it. He hadn't actually done anything, and as far as she knew, there was no law against parking in a public street.
Puffing out her cheeks with an exhaled breath, she crossed the yard and entered the other side of the duplex. As she moved through the empty rooms, she critically examined every nook and cranny, opening doors and drawers and running her fingers over the moldings. She drew on the memory of the much dreaded military housing inspections her mother had gone through each of the many times her army father had changed stations. The military inspectors were notorious for nitpicking, yet Abby knew that this side of the duplex would have no trouble passing a military inspection.
The duplex was an empty duplicate of the half she lived in. She had bought it just before Adam was born, after her husband's arrest. Between the rent from the duplex and her tiny airfreight business, she was able to keep her head above water and the wolf from her door.
Abby ran her fingers through her reddish-blonde hair. Her blood still did a slow boil when she thought of how Joe had deceived her, although even after she had learned the truth, she had acted the part of a good little wife and stood by him. She'd hired the best lawyers, unflinchingly put up bail money, and sat tirelessly in court under the misguided belief that one didn't kick a man when he was down. Only after Joe had been convicted and sentenced to prison had she filed for divorce. She looked at it as coming to her senses, although she knew Joe and Ned saw it as abandonment.
Never one to do things halfway, once Abby had decided to put Joe out of her life, she did it completely. She sold their house and furniture and used the money to purchase the duplex. Except for a formal note when Adam had been born, she did not communicate with Joe, and refused to open or acknowledge any of his letters. She immersed herself in her son and her business, and at twenty-eight, felt satisfied with her life the way it was.
Now she looked critically at the empty duplex. Cream-colored walls surrounded the brown-carpeted floors in the living room, while the surprisingly large kitchen sported blue and white checkerboard tile on the floor and white Formica countertops.
Abby mentally reviewed the state of her finances. Hopefully when these tenants moved out, barring unforeseen catastrophes, she should have enough to repaint both sides of the duplex. At last.
Satisfied that everything was clean and ready for her new tenants, she went back to her side of the duplex. Airplane noises came from Adam's bedroom. She poked her head around the door, and he gave her a cheery smile that lifted her heart. He was the one good thing that had come from her ill-fated marriage
"Ready to get up, Adam?" Abby held out her hand.
Adam hopped out of his airplane bed that he had just received for his third birthday, replacing the battered old crib he'd slept in since birth. "Cookies?" he asked hopefully.
"Graham crackers. And juice," Abby said firmly. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up before the new tenants arrive."
She had just finished tidying up after Adam's snack when the doorbell rang. Abby flung the dishtowel over a chair and grabbed Adam's sturdy hand. "Come on, Tiger. Let's go play landlord."
She opened the door, a ready smile on her face. "Hi," she said. "I'm Abby Tarleton." Her voice trailed off uncertainly. Standing before her, tall and straight like a towering spruce, was the sexiest man she'd seen in a long time. His black, unruly hair fell casually across his forehead, and the blue of his eyes was like a cold wave.
"I'm Sloane Jameson," he said with a deep timbered voice. "I believe you've met my wife, Connie." His flesh met Abby's in a warm clasp.
Abby hastily drew her hand away, shaken by her response to the brief contact. "Yes, of course." She turned to his wife, resolving not to look at him any more than was necessary. "Nice to see you again, Mrs. Jameson." Her voice stayed low and calm, giving no hint of her inner turmoil.
"Thank you. My husband and I are eager to get moved in as quickly as possible." There was just a tinge of frost in Connie Jameson's voice, which wasn't surprising, Abby told herself, since her new landlady was busy making eyes at her husband.
Abby dug into her pocket and pulled out a key ring. With an unfamiliar spurt of self-consciousness, she found herself wishing she'd dressed up a little. Suddenly her faded cut-offs and tattered tank shirt seemed woefully shabby next to Connie Jameson's perfectly coifed look. Even in the stifling heat, Connie seemed cool and crisp in a business-like suit, stockings, heels, and beauty parlor hair. Abby reflected ruefully that this woman certainly didn't need to worry about competition from her landlady. Her banker's veneer outclassed Abby in every way. Lifting her chin somewhat defensively, Abby said, "Let me just take you over and make sure everything's okay."
Gripping Adam's hand tightly, she walked with fluid strides to the other side of the duplex and unlocked the door. Sloane pressed past her and stood in the doorway, his broad shoulders filling it completely for an instant before giving a decisive nod of approval and stepping inside. He and his wife moved through the empty rooms, their voices echoing hollowly. Abby and Adam stood awkwardly in the living room. Abby tried not to listen in on the conversation, but couldn't help hearing Sloane Jameson's enthusiasm as he checked out his new home.
"This is just perfect, honey!" he called to his wife from the larger of the bedrooms. "It's much better than the apartment. Can you imagine?" he directed at Abby as he came back into the living room, his eyebrow quirked questioningly. "The two of us crammed into a tiny efficiency apartment? It will be great to have some room to spread out."
Abby tried not to be caught staring at him. "I hope you'll be happy here. It's a nice neighborhood," she said politely. She reached deep in the pocket of her denim shorts and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. As she handed it to him, her fingers brushed his and she had the wildest urge to jump back. "This is a list of phone numbers you might find helpful. Mine, of course, if you need anything. The numbers you call to set up your utilities, and the number for all the local papers. And, last but not least, the number for the best pizza in town. Free delivery!" Abby winked at him broadly.
Sloane turned his smile up a notch. "That is important," he agreed with a full-throated laugh.
"Oh," Abby reached one more time into her pocket and drew out a set of keys, which she dropped, into his outstretched hand, careful not to let her fingers touch his. "Your keys. Please let me know if you need anything." She grabbed Adam's hand and edged toward the door. "I'll see you later. Bye!" She slipped outside and made good her escape into her own side of the duplex.
What on earth had come over her? She'd never acted like that around any man, much less a married one. Especially with his wife standing right next to him. Maybe Ned was right, and she should start dating again. She'd had no shortage of offers, especially from the other pilots she worked with who were drawn to her leggy good looks, long straight hair, and emerald green eyes. Abby maintained an easy friendship with all the guys, but was careful not to get too close to any of them. After her experience with Joe, she wasn't in any hurry to get involved with a man again.
The doorbell rang again. Abby whirled around, half expecting to find Connie Jameson outside, demanding to know what her intentions were toward her husband. But it was only Ned, leaning against the wall of the porch. "Hi, Sis." He aimed a kiss in her direction, but Abby adeptly deflected it with the ease of many long years of practice.
"What is it this time?" she asked.
Ned slouched inside and gave her a look of pure indignation. "They raised my rent," he said. "It's just too much. Not worth it for that dump. So I need a place to hang out till I find new digs."
In other words, thought Abby tiredly, he got evicted for failing to pay the rent again, and plans to try to move in here for as long as he can possibly get away with it. "Well, you can stay here for a few days," she said. "But you know I don't have room for anything longer than that."
"The other side is empty, I noticed." Ned looked at her hopefully.
Abby smiled with satisfaction. "The new tenants are moving in today. Besides, you couldn't possibly afford what I'd charge you for that place."
Ned sighed. "Oh well, guess I'll stow my gear." He started to head back to the bedrooms, but Abby shook her head.
"This is only a two bedroom duplex, Ned," she reminded him. "And both rooms are taken. You'll have to sleep on the couch."
"Why can't I have Adam's room? He has a bed now."
Abby stifled a giggle at the thought of Ned sleeping in Adam's airplane bed. "Adam's too old to sleep with me," she said firmly. "The couch will be fine. Especially since you are only staying a short while."
Ned gave in and deposited his suitcases over in the corner.
"What's for supper?" was his next question.
Abby was sorely tempted to tell him that relented at the puppy-like look in his eyes. Like him or not, he was her stepbrother, and out of deference to the memory of her stepfather, whom she had adored, she would be nice to him. "I thought I'd make spaghetti," she said, knowing it was one of his favorites. "Why don't you play with Adam while I get it on the table?"
Ned nodded eagerly. Whatever his faults, he was a devoted uncle, and Adam worshipped him. Abby left them happily playing with Adam's toy planes on the floor of the living room while she got supper ready. As she walked past the living room window, she caught a glimpse of the Jamesons unloading furniture from a U-haul. Sloane had pulled off his shirt, and she watched, enthralled, as his powerful, well-muscled body moved with easy grace carrying the heavy boxes and furniture. Beads of sweat glistened on his bronzed back, and he exuded masculinity. He effortlessly slung a large carton onto a dolly and straightened up, looking directly at her, his eyes piercing the distance between them. His whole face split into a smile, and she swiveled, quickly turning her back, feeling a warm flush overtake her face.
Abby hurried into the kitchen, wondering how long he'd been aware of her watching him. She knew one thing; she didn't want to meet Sloane Jameson again any time soon. She found his presence much too disturbing.
Sloane surveyed his living room, newly furnished with a casual jumble of bargain basement specials and scrounged up cast-offs. He critically arranged a brass lamp just so on a glass-covered end table by the puffy gray sofa. "What do you think, Con?" he asked.
Connie shuffled wearily into the room and slumped onto the couch. She brushed a strand of curly dark hair out of her eyes and sighed heavily. "What do I think about what? And where's the number she gave us for that pizza?"
Sloane wedged a hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded slip of paper. "Maybe our landlady will bring us a casserole like the old days."
"Yeah, you'd like that, I'm sure."
"She is rather pretty," Sloane rubbed his sandpapery chin thoughtfully, giving Connie a rakish grin out of the corner of his eye.
Excerpted from Love Under Suspicion by Sondra Quinn Copyright © 2006 by SONDRA QUINN. Excerpted by permission.
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