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Della Jackson latched her seat belt, then looked over at Paul Mason, driving his SUV. Her day had started just after five. It was now nineteen hours long, but she had to give credit to her boss, Madison McKay, owner of Lost, Inc. Holding an "open house" at the small private investigating firm where Della had worked since returning to Florida three years ago was a brilliant idea. Holding it during North Bay's annual street festival was beyond brilliant and now a proven, resounding success.
"I passed tired about nine o'clock. Not that your company hasn't been great." On a horse wearing a cowboy hat or in a black tux as he was now, Paul Mason was gorgeous and charming. Black hair, gray eyes and lean and fit with a face chiseled by a loving hand. More importantly to Della, he was a man of character, trusted, and he expected nothing from her. That made him the perfect nondate date for any event but especially for one of Madison's formal soirees, which Della never attended without a direct command-performance memo.
Paul's arm draped the steering wheel. "Can I say something without you going postal on me?"
Odd remark. "Sure." In their three years of being close friends, hadn't they always spoken freely? From the first time she'd talked to him on the phone from lennessee through his organization, Florida Vet Net, and he'd agreed to help her relocate to Florida, she thought they had done nothing but speak freely.
He braked for a group of about thirty festivalgoers to cross the street. One boy about twelve had the Seminole emblem painted on his cheek: Red is good.
Her dress. So he had noticed that she always wore black. Was he like her landlady's granddaughter next door? Gracie, a precocious eight-year-old, had taken one look at the red dress her grandmother was rehemming because Della had hemmed the silk with dental floss and asked if Della was done mourning.
What mother ever stopped mourning the death of a child? What woman stopped mourning the resulting breakup of her marriage? "The black dress didn't fit."
Disappointment flashed through Paul's eyes. "Ah, I see." He turned onto Highway 20, then minutes later, south into her subdivision. "You seemed to have fun tonight."
"You know I did." They'd danced, enjoyed a battle of the bands and had a grand time. Fun. She'd had fun.
The thought sank in, and a flood of guilt swarmed in right behind it.
He clicked on his blinker to turn onto her street. "It's okay for you to have fun, Della. And to wear clothes that aren't black. It's been three years."
"I know." She'd heard it all from everyoneher former pastor, her landlady, her boss, her boss's assistantand now from Paul.
"But knowing it and feeling it are two different things?" he suggested.
He understood. Paul always understood. "Exactly." Days passing on a calendar didn't change the grief or loss in a mother's heart. That was the part the others didn't seem to understand. The ache and emptiness were still fresh, the wounds still raw. She sighed, glanced out the window. Gracie stood on Della's front porch. What was that she was holding? "But I am working onStop!"
Paul hit the brakes hard, screeched to a stop. "What's wrong?"
Della didn't pause to answer but grabbed the door, flung it open and scrambled out. "Gracie!" she screamed, her voice frantic, and ran full out toward her cottage. Oh, please no. Don't let it happen again. "Put down that package!"
Gracie stood statue-still, her eyes stretched wide, like a terrified deer blinded by headlights.
"Put the box down, Gracie." Della softened her voice. "Do it now. Right now."
Gracie set the box on the porch's floor and then just stood beside it.
Della snatched her off the porch, buried her against her hammering chest and ran across the postage-stamp-sized yard to the sidewalk near the street, putting the most distance possible between the package and the child, using her own body as a shield.
Paul ran up to them. "What's wrong?"
Della ignored him. "Gracie, didn't your gran tell you not to get my mail?"
"II didn't, Della," she said on a stuttered breath. "You're squishing me."
Della loosened her hold. "Where did you get the box?"
"It wasn't in the mailbox, I promise. It was on the porch by the swing." Her voice cracked. "I was scared you wouldn't see it and"
Della's heart still banged against her ribs, threatened to thump out of her chest. She was shaking. Hard. "I appreciate it, but next time you listen to me. Don't get my mail anymore or any packages. Got it?"
A fat tear rolled down Gracie's cheek.
Paul smiled and flicked away Gracie's tear. "Della knows you were trying to help, and she's sorry she sounds so angry. She's not, you know."
"She sounds plenty mad." Gracie's chin quivered.
"No, I'm not mad." Della felt like a slug. A terrified slug, but still a slug. "I was scared."
"Why?" Gracie and Paul asked simultaneously.
Oh, boy. She was in for it now, but it was past time for the truth. "Gracie, you know what happened to Danny, right?" Just speaking her son's name hurt, reopened the gaping wounds in her battered heart.
Gracie nodded. Light from the streetlamp had the glittery face paint from the festival sparkling on her cheeks. "His daddy was holding him and he opened the mailbox and it exploded. His daddy got hurt, but Danny went to heaven. Now he lives with your mom and dad and my grandpa."
"That's right." Della said it, and would give her eyeteeth to still believe it. But her beliefs or lack of them were her problem, not Gracie's. "This is my fault. I didn't want to frighten you, but I should have told you I'm worried the man who did that to Danny might do it again. That's why I don't want you getting my mail and why I sounded so angry. When I saw you on the porch with that box I was really scared."
Gracie curled her arms around Della's neck and hugged her fiercely. Her breath warmed Della's neck, melted the icy chill steeped in her bones. "I'm not going to heaven yet. It'll be a long, long time. Gran said."
Gran was the ultimate authority on all things. "That's good to know." Della blew out a steadying breath, then set Gracie down on the sidewalk. "You run on home now. It's late and your gran is waiting." What was Miss Addie thinking, letting Gracie come outside this late at night alone?
"She doesn't know I'm gone. She's in the shower."
That explained that. "What made you come out here?" Della should have asked that before now, and probably would have, if seeing the child holding that package hadn't scared ten years off her life.
"I saw the man put the box on the porch."
A chill streaked through Della. "Did you know him?"
She shook her head. "It was too dark. I just saw the box moving. He was carrying it."
"He was wearing dark clothes, then?" Della asked.
"I dunno. I only saw the box until he left. Then when he got to the sidewalk I saw him."
Because of the streetlight. "Would you know him again?"
"No. Everything was black." She tilted her head. "Well, except his shoes."
"Did you see his face?"
Paul spoke softly. "Gracie, are you sure it was a man?"
"I dunno. He was bigger than Della, but not as big as you. I couldn't see."
"Okay, honey," Della said. "You go on home now before your gran can't find you and gets scared."
"And no more leaving the house without her knowing it," Paul said.
"Yes, sir." Gracie cut across the grass and headed next door. "Night, Della. Bye, Mr. Mason."
"Good night, Gracie."
"I wish she'd seen more," Paul said. "I hope he didn't see her." Della's gaze collided with Paul's. "You're not thinking it was FedEx, are you?"
"At midnight?" She muffled a grunt. "No."
"Neither am I," he said, then waited, clearly expecting her to explain her behavior and her concerns.
Della hesitated, staring back at the porch at the box, but Paul let the silence between them stretch, blatantly waiting for her to look at him. Resigned, she did. At least he wasn't scowling.
"Spill what?" The porch light cast streaks of light across the sidewalk, but it wasn't so dark she didn't see the stern look in his eyes. She could try to act as if everything was fine now that Gracie was safely tucked into her own cottage, pretend that her being outside was what really terrified Della and hope he'd go home so she could examine the box on her own, but that required deceit. She hated deceit and she'd never practiced it with Paul. The idea of doing so now grated on her. Just considering it made her feel slimy.
"Don't minimize this." He frowned. "Your explanation satisfied Gracie, but I know you, Della Jackson. You're not suddenly scared of another mailbox bomb. Not with Dawson locked away in a mental hospital. So what's going on?"
He knew her too well. "Dawson isn't in the mental hospital anymore. He's out."
Surprised lit across Paul's face. "Since when?"
"Apparently, for about six weeks"
"And you didn't tell me?"
"There's no need to shout at me. My hearing is just fine." She frowned up at him. "I just found out two weeks ago."
"A month after the fact? But they were supposed to give you advance notice."
"Yes, they were, but they didn't. I fell through the crack."
"So two weeks ago, they notified you and you didn't think it was significant enough to mention?"
"I was going to tell you. I just hadn't gotten around to it yet. My caseload has been a bear, and then there was the open houseit's just been kind of crazy."
"You're still making excuses. Please don't." She opened her mouth, but he lifted a finger. "You figure Dawson is out and knows where you are because.?"
She clamped her jaw and stared at the box on the porch. Anything she said would upset Paul more and she didn't want to do that.
"Della, I know something has happened. Just Dawson's release wouldn't put you in the panic you were in when you saw Gracie. Stop making me pull teeth, woman, and tell me what's going on."
"The truth is, I'm not sure yet." She summoned her courage and headed toward the box.
From the edge of the porch, she studied the label and felt the blood drain from her face. "But we need to call the police."
He walked over to where she stood. "Why?"
"Because" she spared him a glance "it says it's from Tennessee."
His frown faded and his face brightened. "Maybe Jeff's finally sent you the pictures of Danny."
She'd asked her ex for a photo of her son every month for three years and had gotten nothing. No photo, no response whatsoever. "Highly doubtfulno." She more closely examined the box. "This isn't from Jeff, and I don't know anyone else in Tennessee anymore."
"How do you know it's not from him? If there's no one else"
Having the benefit of insights he did not, she pointed but didn't touch the package. "See this code on the shipping label?"
Paul read it and then looked over at her, his expression grave. "It's a Florida zip code."
"Walton County." Della nodded. "But someone clearly wanted me to think the box was from Tennessee." The return address had been written in black marker.
"That's more than enough for me." Paul pulled out his cell and dialed.
"Who are you calling?" Della asked.
Paul lifted a wait-a-second finger. "Major Beech, it's Paul Mason. Fine. Yeah, a good turnout." He moved to put himself between the box and Della. "I've got a suspicious package over at Della Jackson's cottage."
Major Harrison Beech. Why was Paul calling the base and not the local police? Della grimaced. "It could be nothing."
She said it, but it didn't feel like nothing. It felt like a huge something.
"Thanks, Beech." Paul hung up and guided Della away from the package. "He's coming out with some friends."
A team of professionals. His hand on her arm was firm, leading her back toward the sidewalk. "Why did you call him?"
"He's an explosives specialist."
"But we don't know that there are explosives in the box, Paul."
"Which is why it's best to be prudent." He stopped. "We do know the package was delivered under suspicious circumstances."
"But Beech?" The military reminded her of her active duty days when she'd been stationed at the base here, and of all she'd lost while serving in Afghanistan. Things she'd worked hard to forget but failed, and now worked hard to accept. "Couldn't the police handle it?" Actually, she didn't want them called, either. She didn't need the police.
Now that she'd absorbed the shock of seeing Gracie on the porch holding that box, she wanted to check it out herself. It could be a prank, related to one of her cases. Could be a practical joke of some sort, or anything other than something dangerous. She was a professional investigator, for pity's sake. If the local police considered her a hysterical woman, her professional effectiveness would be hampered on every case she worked from now on.
Yet Paul's reason for calling Major Beech intrigued her. Why had he done that? Oh, she'd heard what he'd said. But she knew him, and his reasons would never be that simple. There was definitely more to it.
"The local police are not explosives specialists, and they're tied up with the festival. They'd have to get a unit from Walton County to come in and, frankly, Walton would probably just call the base for assistance anyway. Calling Beech direct saves time." Paul led her down the sidewalk toward his SUV. "Let's wait in the car."
All true, but still not everything. What more was there? "You've got a bad feeling about this, don't you?" Della sensed it in him, just as she felt it in the pit of her stomach. Maybe it was their military training. Paul had served in special operations. Della had served in the intelligence realm as a computer specialist. Both positions required skill sets that included honed instincts.
Or maybe it wasn't their common military experience but the personal bond connecting them that put them on a kindred wavelength. Whatever the reason, they both had a feeling about this, and it wasn't good.
"Yeah, I do, Della." He wrapped a protective arm around her shoulder. "A real bad feeling."
She shivered and he pulled her closer.
Crouching low, he hid in the darkness between two fat bushes and watched them walk to the black SUV and get inside. He'd chosen this spot across the street because it was void of light; she'd never spot him, yet he could see every move she made.
Why didn't you just open the box? Frustrated, he cast an agitated glare at her neighbor's house, the cottage next door. It was that stupid kid's fault. If she hadn't interfered, Della would have found the package. He'd have seen her open it. There's no way she would have walked away without opening it. He'd have seen her panic and felt her fear.
He thrived on her fear.
For six weeks, the anticipation had been building, clawing at his stomach, urging him to rush. Temptation burned so strong but he'd strained mightily against it and fortunately his leash had heldat least, thus far. Discipline, man. To win requires discipline.
It did. Enormous discipline. Della Jackson was not a fool.