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At eleven-thirty on Tuesday night, two hours after the canned Santa Claus music had gone blessedly silent out on the street, a squeak, which sounded like rubber-sole shoes on tile, reached Tess Vance from the hallway outside her locked office door. She heard footsteps almost rushed sneaky.
She straightened from her computer keyboard and frowned. She knew the cadence of her brother's swift pace. Gerard Vance had the legs of a giraffe. He could cover the length of the hallway in less than ten steps, and he didn't walk as if he was sneaking anywhere. Neither did Sean Torrance, who also had his office up here. Besides those two men, Tess was the only person who had a key to the admin offices.
Tess stacked several sheets of information that needed to be entered into the data system. She was preparing to stand up and stretch her aching back when she heard another echo of footsteps, rushed as before. Her heartbeat rocked through her body.
Was her imagination working overtime with the rest of her? She glanced at the phone on the corner of her desk, unreasonably terrified of being alone right now.
A homeless woman, Carlotta, who had come to the mission more than once for food and a place to sleep, had been found dead two weeks ago, not far from here. It appeared she'd been ill and exposed to the elements. No one suspected foul play except Tess and possibly Sean and Gerard, though neither of them had told her what they thought.
Tess couldn't get that awful announcement from her mind. It had been related on the local Channel 11 as a brief aside, as if Carlotta didn't matter as much as someone with money and an address.
One channel that had treated her death as the tragic event it was had been KSFJ, 106.1 FM, the radio station that had been owned and managed by the Torrance family for the past two decades. After Sean inherited the station and took over management three years ago, he'd brought with him a whole new level of popularityand compassion.
Despite Tess's anxietyor perhaps because of itshe settled her thoughts on Sean, who had the ability to calm her tension with nothing more than a look, a gentle word, a touch on her hand. He was the person who had helped Tess in the past eight months, since joining Gerard in the work at this mission, to convince local churches to organize a system of volunteerism for the rescue missions and soup kitchens in the region.
Sean had been a godsend to Gerard, Tess and their older brother, Hans, and to the hundreds of homeless in multiple cities who benefited from his organizational skills. Everyone who knew him benefited from his big heart. But Tess couldn't help feeling she benefited the most.
Tess felt the tension in her body ease. In contrast to her brother's Nordic blond, rugged good looks, Sean had hair as dark as the night sea and eyes the color of midnight surf. He did share Gerard's size and strength and thoughtful consideration toward othersdespite his wicked sense of humor when he and Gerard teased Tess.
She considered calling one of the two men. Just in case. She suddenly felt reluctant to wander these hallways alone tonight.
She reached for the phone and allowed her hand to hover over it but quickly chastised herself for being jittery. She'd worked many late nights alone in the mission with less crew than they had tonight. There was nothing to worry about. She glanced over her shoulder toward the barred window that overlooked the street and saw nothing but a reflection of those protective bars. No movement. Maybe one of the children had somehow slipped upstairs, had become lost trying to sneak back for more of the banana pudding cake that was Sean's specialand secretrecipe.
But the kitchen was downstairs, not up here.
Something felt different tonight. Maybe it was the measure of activity that had kicked into high gear here at the mission because Christmas was here in a little over two weeks, or maybe it was the lateness of the hour. Gerard had been forced to rely more and more on volunteer staff since Tess arrived nine months agohe and Hans were saving for their next move in the rescue mission project. They wanted to establish a rehabilitation center.
With the exception of Sean, who was a tireless worker, the most experienced volunteers wanted to spend more hours shopping, decorating and prepping for Christmas parties. The Vance Rescue Mission had been left with seasonal help, folks with good hearts who knew little about the work involved.
Of course, Gerard's ground rules helped a lotwhen an able adult refused to work, that adult didn't eat, so those in need of food knew they might have the opportunity to earn their keep here. Gerard believed this rule was not only helpful for the mission, but it engendered self-respect for those who worked for their meals.
Another footstep echoed out in the hallwaythe sound of hesitance, only one step, then silence.
Tess closed her eyes and waited. She knew she was still suffering from stress disorder after her fiance's death in March. The sense of horror continued to follow her nine months after Tanner Jackson was intentionally run down and killed. She was jumpy, startled easily and seldom felt at peace in her surroundings.
Her hand continued to hover. One place she did feel at peace was in Sean's presence. And why wouldn't she? He was six foot four and weighed probably 220, all muscle. Was she simply looking for an excuse to see him one more time tonight?
Until this past March, Tess had never been a nervous person. She had dealt with all kinds of people in her marketing agency. She could handle anyone from self-absorbed diva performers to angry authors whose novels didn't sell as well as they'd hoped to belligerent employees who thought they had a right to company finances. A few times in the past, she'd been forced to ruffle feathers. She still desperately needed to know whose feathers she'd ruffled enough to get Tanner killed.
Again, the sound of footsteps reached her, rushed, staccato. Someone was running in the hallway. The steps came closer. The locked knob rattled, and then something rammed the door.
Tess opened her mouth to scream, fists clenching as she braced for someone to break through. But she pressed her lips together, took a deep breath, willed herself to remain silent as she squeezed her eyes tightly shut.
She could handle this; she didn't need to go running to Gerard or Sean. She reached into the top drawer of her desk and grabbed the pepper mace, slammed the drawer shut.
The echo of diminishing footsteps told her she was already too late, but she reached the door, slung it open and glanced each direction along the hallway. A shadow on the far window to her left was all she saw of her intruder, and then it was gone.
She paused, frustrated, frightened and ashamed. It could still be a rambunctious little boy who had found his way up here. Perhaps someone had left the door unlocked? Who would've been able to ram her door so hard that the impact still rattled in her brain? Not a little boy. Teenager plying a little mischief?
Something on the polished tile floor caught her attention at the bend of the corridor to her right, as if someone had trackedwhat was it, straw?from outside. Something from a manger scene?
Though Tess had always been nearly as courageous as her brother, courage had failed her lately. Gerard would worry if he knew, so for the past nine months she'd kept her trepidation to herself as much as possible.
The straw on the floor hadn't been here when she'd come upstairs three hours ago. She'd heard no one while she was doing data entry and planning a new strategy for promotion.
She wasn't a clean freak, but she stepped into the hallway to investigate. She was bending over to pick up the litter when a footstep from behind startled her so badly she had to strangle a scream. She held the mace up and pivoted.
It was Sean. His hulking shoulders seemed to expand to the width of the hallway. She went weak and nearly collapsed. "Do you know how close you came to sneezing pepper?"
Sean Torrance had the most melodious laughter she'd ever heard. "Janitorial volunteers didn't show up tonight?"
She didn't return his smile.
"Sorry," he said, still chuckling. "A little jittery, aren't you? Poorly done Christmas music does that to me, too, though not quite to the point of wanting to mace someone."
She narrowed her eyes at him, raising one brow in threat.
Sean forced himself to stop laughing. Since he and Gerard had first been assigned as partners in the Corpus Christi police force ten years ago, he'd been undeniably drawn to Gerard's younger half sister. She was like a fiery angel with hair and eyes the color of shiny onyx. She'd been able to make him smile when nothing and no one else could, especially these past months.
"You're just so doggone cute when you glare like that," Sean told Tess.
Her dark eyes flared, and he was tempted to taunt her a littletell her outright that she should stop trying to deny her attraction to him, because he wasn't buying it. But he knew better. Tess had been different ever since Tanner's death. He knew she still blamed herself, though she never talked about it.
"Cruel," she said to him. "That was cruel." Her eyes darkened further as she pushed past the fear that seemed to cling to her. She'd been startled. He could see that now.
"I know. Sorry. What've you got?" he asked, nodding at the straw and whatever else she held in her hand.
"Did you hear the noise out here a moment ago?" she asked.
"Yeah. Thought it was you, so I stepped out for some company, and lo and behold, there you were, showing me a whole 'nother um side of yourself." He bounced his eyebrows in an attempt at a leer.
"I meant, before I came out."
The leer vanished. "I take it you weren't the one running, banging around out here. I mean, remember the time we had that infestation of mice, and you chased"
"Not mice. Not this time."
"Tess, what happened?" He was suddenly a cop again.
She held up the straw. "The running, banging on the door, it was someone else. Someone tried to breakand I mean literally breakinto my office. Who could have gotten up here?
Sean felt himself go cold inside. He reached beneath his coat for his sidearm.
"No." She touched his arm, shaking her head. "It may be nothing. No need for guns."
She hesitated, took a deep breath, and Sean knew she was much more spooked than she wanted to let on.
"Gerard's been gone for hours," Sean told her. He reached for the material in her hand, sniffed it, wrinkled his nose. "Manure and mud. Someone come up here from a feedlot?"
"Did you lock behind you when you came upstairs?" he asked.
"I always do. You?"
"Sure did." Gerard had told Sean he'd purchased this building in this district of town because he knew this was where they would find the most people in need, but he also knew that calling it a mission didn't protect this place from danger more than any other place of business in the area. The secondhand store they operated in the connecting building kept money, and this time of year they brought in a lot.
"How long have you been here?" Tess asked.
"Half the day. I'm working on yearend accounts for the station, and I can't get anything done there. Too many interruptions." Not that he didn't have plenty of interruptions here and distractions just down the hallway. The beautiful lady's presence could be very distracting.
Tess took a deep breath, let it out slowly. She flexed her shoulders and met Sean's gaze again, as if looking at him made her feel safer.
He stepped closer. "Maybe we could share an office for a while, at least until things slow down after the holidays."
She hesitated for a moment, obviously thinking about it, but then she shook her head. "You just want the office with the bathroom in it," she said, as if she, too, was teasing. But he could hear the tremor in her voice.
"Not true." He followed her as she stepped back into her small office. "There's no room for two desks in here. You'd have to move in with me."
"Not happening. I like my private bathroom."
"We could change the locks to our upstairs sanctuary."
"Good idea. Tomorrow?"
"First thing in the morning." He glanced again at the clump of strange evidence in his hand. "Got a plastic bag?" he asked.
She reached into the set of trays on the wall and pulled out a self-sealing envelope. "That's the best I can do."
He dropped the straw, mud and manure into the envelope, took it from her, sealed it and set it on the corner of her desk. He then went into the small half bath and washed his hands. She joined him. No telling where that stuff came from.
Though Sean and Gerard had both left the police force more than three years agoGerard to join their brother in an extremely successful start-up, a green-manufacturing plant to help support this mission, and Sean to take over his family-owned radio stationthey both retained the instincts of policemen.
He believed that was one reason Tess felt safe working here for the time being, living in the back wing of Gerard's house, never too far away from either Sean or Gerard. For the first time in her adult life, this past year she'd allowed herself to be protected by her older brothers. And Sean.
The men had made a pact to keep watch over her and protect her at any cost. That wasn't always easy, because Tess was independent to the point of arrogance at times. Sean wasn't going to tell her that. At least not at this point of their non-relationship.