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Someone was watching her.
Monica Grant glanced around the bustling central plaza in downtown Sonoma, California, and rubbed the back of her neck, but the ugly, prickly feeling wouldn't go away. She remembered the well-worn phrase from her Nancy Drew books"the hair stood up on the back of her neck"but she'd never realized how true it was. Until now.
She couldn't actually see anyone looking at herthere were tourists strolling around Sonoma City Hall and the fountain, cars driving slowly around the square, shoppers stepping in and out of the quaint shops. A few locals across the street noticed her looking at them and waved hello. She waved back with a smile, recognizing them as staff from a nearby restaurant. The Grant family's successful day spa, Joy Luck Life, had helped bring even more activity to the small tourist town, and all of her family was acquainted with most of the local business owners and staff.
But as she continued walking along the line of shops and historical buildings, the creepy feeling crawled up her shoulder blades. She whirled around suddenly, but didn't catch anyone in the act of staring at her, or ducking into a shop doorway to escape her notice.
It had been a silly thought, anyway. She wasn't a spy. She was probably imagining things.
She turned to enter Lorianne's Cafe, a popular new restaurant owned by one of her high school classmates, which served California fusion cuisine made exclusively with local produce. She thought the feeling of being watched would go away as soon as she entered the building, but an uncomfortable shaft of prickling shot down her spine. She turned to look out the restaurant's glass front doors, toward the green park area around Sonoma City Hall, but couldn't see anyone except a few tourists walking by.
"Monica Grant, are you stalking me?"
The voice, still betraying the slight Irish lilt of his homeland, made her turn. "Mr. O'Neill! I should say,you're stalking me."
Patrick O'Neill's light blue eyes creased deeply at the corners. "Seeing you at the Zoe International charity banquet last week wasn't enough. I had to get in more of your lovely company." He enfolded her in a hug that made her cheek rasp against his usual Hawaiian-print, button-down shirt. Quite a contrast to the tuxedo he'd worn at the annual dinner that Zoe International, an anti-human-slavery organization, had hosted to thank its donors.
"Are you here in Sonoma just for the day?" Monica asked. "Or are you staying overnight before you head back down to Marin?"
"I'm here for a few days, spending time with my new grandson."
"That's right, I heard about the new baby yesterday from Aunt Becca." At first Monica had been shocked because she'd thought the new baby was Shaun's son, but quickly realized her mistakeit was Brady's son, Shaun's nephew. She hoped Aunt Becca hadn't noticed her initial stunned reaction.
"What have you been up to in the seven whole days since I've seen you?" He tugged at a silver lock of hair on his wide forehead. It brought back an image of Shaun doing the same gesture.
She forced her mind away from his eldest son. "I'm still taking care of Dad since he had his stroke."
"He's doing better? Last week, we were interrupted before I could ask you about him."
"He still needs a live-in nurse, but I'm also taking him to physical therapy several times a week, and he's gaining mobility back. He doesn't need me quite as much, which is good, because my sister Naomi announced her engagement six weeks ago. She's planning her wedding, so sometimes when she has to take off work at the spa, I fill in as manager for her."
"Will she still be manager when she marries?"
"No, she's going to start her own private massage therapy business in the city, closer to her future husband's office. We're trying to hire someone to take over when she leaves, but until then.. " She had to stifle a small sigh. Because she still took care of her dad, filling in for Naomi stole precious free time that she didn't have. The spa needed to hire someone soon.
"From nurse to manager." His blue eyes were more piercing than his son's. "It doesn't sit with you well?"
His insight startled her. "I loved being an Emergency Room nurse," she said, "but I have to admit I don't regret quitting my job at Good Samaritan Hospital when Dad needed me. What I'd really like to do is run a free children's clinic for Sonoma and Napa counties."
Unlike Monica's father, Mr. O'Neill didn't roll his eyes at her. Instead, he nodded gravely. "Then you should do it, my girl. You only have one life to love."
His phrasing touched her on a deeper level, stirred up things she had left collecting on the bottom. She shifted uncomfortably, then changed gears, giving him a teasing look. "So who are you meeting for lunch? Yet another struggling hotel owner whose hotel you're going to buy and then turn into a raging success?"
"No, I'm just here having lunch with my son." He gestured behind him.
Brady, his second eldest son, lived only a few miles from Sonoma in Geyserville. Monica's gaze flickered over Mr. O'Neill's shoulder, past the hostess waiting patiently behind the desk, toward the restaurant's bar and she froze.
Shaun O'Neill stared right back at her. Her breath stopped in her throat and seemed to hum there. She recognized the strange sensation, something she had only felt twice before in her lifeat her first sight of a cherry red Lamborghini, and the very first time she'd met Shaun O'Neill, ten years ago at a Zoe International banquet.
Her heart started racing as he rose from his seat at the bar and walked toward them. His expression was unfathomable. Was he happy to see her? Indifferent? Something about the way he held his eyes made her think he felt the same rush of intensity she did.
No, she had to find a way to smother the electricity zinging through her veins. Shaun was a cop, and she would never, ever date anyone in law enforcement. In the E.R., she had seen what that profession did to the families left behind, had tried to heal the unhealable pain of losing a fine man to a criminal's gunshot. She knew her heart wouldn't be able to handle it.
She also knew she wouldn't be able to handle him.
As he approached, his scent wrapped around hera thread of well-tooled leather, a hint of pine, a deep note of muska combination uniquely Shaun's. "Hi, Shaun." She gave a polite smile that hopefully masked the way he made her feel so alive.
"Hi, Monica." The deep voice had a slight gravelly edge to it, promising danger and excitement. "It's been a long time."
"I didn't know you were back in Sonoma."
"I quit the border patrol," he said softly.
"What?" Surprised, she looked up at him and immediately drowned in the cerulean blue sea of his straightforward gaze. Shaun had always been aggressive with his stance, with his looksand he was that way now, standing a little too close to her, staring a little too intently. "I.. " She cleared her throat. "I thought you loved the border patrol. The last time we met, you were so enthusiastic about it."
"I'm back to spend time with my family. I'm thinking of applying for the Sonoma Police Department."
"Not as exciting as the border patrol," she remarked, looking for his reaction.
How strange. He still had that bad-boy air about him, but there was something that reminded her of a wounded dog. No, a wolf. A wounded wolf. She wanted to reach out to him, to help him if she could.
Wounded wolves still bite. She had to remind herself that he wasn't her type. She had to stop now so she wouldn't go any deeper. She wouldn't submit herself to the kind of pain she'd seen in the Emergency Room. She shook off the memory of a cop's widow's shaking shoulders and forced her mind back to the present.
Then something invisible raking along her spine made her jerk. She turned to look out again through the glass of the restaurant doors but only saw the same view of Sonoma City Hall, made of local quarried stone that looked more flint-gray today under the overcast skies. Different tourists from the last time she'd looked walked around the grounds now.
She was being paranoid. She had to get a hold of herself.
She turned back to Mr. O'Neill. "The last time we talked, you mentioned how you were going to sell the Fontana Hotel in Marin and do consulting work rather than buy another hotel. Do you know when that's going to happen?"
Mr. O'Neill smiled at her. "Does your question have anything to do with the rumors I heard that your father's going to expand the spa and add a hotel?"
Monica grinned. "Guilty as charged. I have a lunch appointment in a few minutes, but do you have time today to talk about possibly consulting for him?"
He gave her a sharp look. "Have you talked to Augustus about this yet?"
Heat like a sunburn crept up her neck. "Uh Dad mentioned yesterday how he needed help now that he's actually decided to go forward with the hotel."
Mr. O'Neill smiled. "I do have time this afternoon." He turned to Shaun. "Did you want to come with me or pick me up later?"
"I'll come with you." His voice was light, but his blue eyes flickered to Monica.
She had to remind herself that she wanted to speak with his father, not with him. "Great. Thanks, Mr. O'Neill. Three o'clock at our house?"
"Sounds good. Who are you meeting for lunch, by the way?"
"It's a potential investor for my free children's clinic. Phillip Bromley."
Shaun's jaw suddenly tightened and his eyes became shards of ice. "The son of the CEO of Lowther Station Bank in San Francisco?"
She nodded. "His brother's a medical missionary in Kenya. I've known Phillip for a few months, but last week at the Zoe banquet, he expressed interest in my clinic and mentioned that his brother might be willing to donate his time to the clinic when he returns to the States this summer."
But Shaun was shaking his head. "You should stay away from Bromley."
"Shaun.. " Mr. O'Neill said gently.
"Why?" Monica said. "Phillip has always been perfectly civil to me." Whereas Shaun's wildness seemed to exude from him, only barely restrained by his conservative white cotton shirt and jeans.
There was also anger underlying that wildness as he answered, "It's just a mask. It's not the real him."
A mask? Monica hadn't seen that at all, and she prided herself on being able to read people rather well. She didn't particularly like Phillipthere was something about his manner that seemed too self-focused and self-servingbut she hadn't detected anything deceptive during the times they spoke to each other.
"He's dangerous," Shaun growled. "You need to stay away from him."
Shaun's commanding tone grated down her spine, and she lifted her chin to glare at his set face. "How is he dangerous?" Shaun's lips tightened briefly. "He just is. You don't know him."
"And you do?"
"Better than you do."
"Children," Mr. O'Neill said in a long-suffering voice, "play nice."
Monica backed down. Mr. O'Neill was right, she was being childish. The same fiery temper that got her into arguments with her dad was now picking fights with a man who only wanted to what? Warn her? Protect her? She wasn't used to men like Shaun, whose life work was protecting people. Her ex-boyfriends had mostly been artists and playboys, who all seemed "soft" now compared with Shaun's solid presence.
She had to admit that his presence made her feel less uneasy, less vulnerable to the eyes that mightor might notbe watching her. She couldn't stop herself from glancing outside again, but saw no one lurking or looking at her.
At that moment, her cell phone rang, and the caller ID said it was Phillip.
"I'll talk to you later," Mr. O'Neill said quickly, giving her a peck on the cheek before letting the hovering hostess seat him and Shaun at a table.
She answered the call. "Hi, Phillip." Were his ears burning because they'd been talking about him?
"Hi, Monica. I'm sorry, but there's an overturned construction truck here on highway 121. I'll be about twenty minutes late."
"No problem. I'll be waiting."
She had the hostess seat her at a table, but stopped when she saw it was right in the center of the large windows at the front of the restaurant. She glanced out at the tourists and pedestrians on the street. No one was even looking in her direction, but she felt as if a cold hand gripped her around the throat.
"Could I get a table near the back?" she asked, and the hostess nodded and seated her at a small table at the back of the restaurant.
However, it was close to where Shaun and his father were seated. She didn't want to request another change so she sat, but it was hard for her to keep her head averted with Shaun only a few feet away to her right.
At least the horrible feeling of being watched was gone. She spent a few minutes checking her email on her phone, but then the restaurant's owner and chef, Lorianne, approached her table with a long white florist's box and a huge grin on her face. "Hey, Monica. I happened to be up front just now when this was delivered for you." Excitement radiated from her bright eyes as she sat down across from her. "Who's it from? You didn't mention a new boyfriend when I talked to you a couple weeks ago."
"I still don't have a boyfriend. Your guess is as good as mine." Monica didn't look at Shaun, but could sense him glancing at her at Lorianne's words. Really, what business was it of his? She wished she weren't so close to their table.
"Ooh, a secret admirer," Lorianne said. "Well, as owner of this fine establishment, I am entitled to view any and all flowers delivered." She winked at Monica.
A part of her was flattered by the gift. Who wouldn't be? But another part of her was wary. Who gave flowers to a woman through a delivery and not personally? Then it occurred to her that maybe Phillip had them delivered in advance of their meeting. He had seemed a bit friendly last week at the Zoe banquet, but she'd been careful not to encourage anything more than a business relationship. She hoped he didn't misinterpret her body language.
Well, she knew who it wasn't from. She tried to angle her body away from Shaun as she lifted the lid. An odd cigarette smell made her eyes burn, and she blinked away sudden tears.
In the box, nestled among white tissue paper, lay a huge dead snake.
Monica gasped and dropped the box onto the table, making the silverware rattle.
"Oh, my gosh." Lorianne's eyes were huge.
The ugliness of the gift seemed to stifle her, and Monica fought to breathe. Who would send her something so hateful, so horrible?