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'Give us money and you won't get hurt,' squeaked one of them, grabbing her arm.
'Not a chance!' she hissed, and, fired by fear and rage and sheer incredulity that this could actually be happening to her, she rammed an elbow into her young assailant's ribs and prepared to do battle.
After a two-hour drive on the motorway, diversion signs were leading Joe Tregenna all round the town, and he was in no mood to get involved when his headlamps picked up a knot of youths in a brawl. Then he saw that one of them was a girl, struggling with two figures in masks. With a muttered curse he braked to a stop and jumped from the car just as one youth doubled up in a crumpled heap on the ground and the other took to his heels and raced off, sobbing, in the darkness. 'Are you all right?' Joe asked the girl urgently. 'Are you hurt?'
She shook her head, thrusting her hair behind her ears. 'No,' she panted. 'Just livid. But he's not so good.' She glared at the gasping, writhing figure on the ground. 'I'd better ring the police.'
At the dreaded word the boy shot to his feet, but Joe grabbed him by his collar. 'Oh, no, you don't, sunshine.'
'We wasn't hurting her,' the boy choked. 'We was only asking for change.'
'In masks?' said Joe grimly. 'I don't think so.' He turned to the girl. 'You're shivering. Are you sure you're all right?'
She nodded brusquely. 'Angry, not cold.'
Joe reached one-handed for the cellphone on his belt. 'Ring the police on this.'
'No!' The boy burst into tears, shaking like a leaf in Joe's grasp. 'Please don't turn me in, miss. We got the masks at the garage with some sweets, so when we saw you come out of the pub we followed you for a dare—got the idea from the telly,' he sobbed. 'My mum'll kill me.'
She surveyed him in silence for a moment, arms folded. 'Let him go,' she said at last.
Joe stared at her incredulously. 'You can't let him get away with it!'
She moved towards the boy, who shrank away in fright. 'You just listen to me,' she said militantly. 'Here's the deal. I'll leave the police out of it if you swear you won't do this again. Ever.'
He nodded feverishly. 'I won't. Nor Dean won't, neither.' 'Is Dean your friend?' she asked. He shook his head, sniffing hard. 'Kid brother. He didn't want to come. He was scared.'
'What's your name?'
'Right, then, Robbie,' she said brusquely. 'No more stupid stunts like this.' She bent to pick up the fallen mask. 'But I'll keep Batman here. It'll have your DNA on it, remember. Is your mother at home?'
He shook his head. 'She's a nurse at the General—on nights this week.'
'She leaves you on your own at night?' said Joe, frowning.
'No, never!' The boy knuckled tears from his eyes. 'Our stepdad's home in bed. We climbed out the bedroom window once he was snoring.'
'Are you in the habit of this?'
He gulped. 'No, honest. We never done it before.'
'And you'd better be sure you never do it again, like the lady said,' ordered Joe. 'I'm sure you've been warned about lifts from strangers, so we'll walk you home and hand you over to your stepfather,' he added, sending the boy into hysterics again.
'Are you afraid of him?' said the girl sharply.
'No! He's a good bloke. But he'll grass on me to Mum!'
When the boy pleaded to climb back through his bedroom window instead of waking his stepfather, Joe raised an eyebrow at the tall, watchful figure of the girl. 'OK with you? I'll walk you home afterwards.'
The girl nodded. 'Fine. Come on, then, Robbie. Let's go.'
When they arrived at the address Robbie gave them, the boy gave a sigh of relief when he saw a face peering round a curtain at an upstairs window.
'Dean's back! He run straight home like I said.'
'Sensible chap,' said Joe, and turned a stern look on the boy. 'Now, just you remember, my lad,' he said with deliberate menace. 'I know where you live.'
Robbie nodded feverishly, then ran up the path, swarmed up a drainpipe as nimbly as a monkey, and disappeared headfirst through the open window.
Joe waited until he was sure the boy was safe inside, then gave a wry glance at his companion as they began the walk back. 'Hello, at last. My name's Joe Tregenna.'
She smiled briefly. 'Fen Dysart. Thanks for your help.'
'When I spotted a fight I was going to drive on by, or call the police at the very most,' he said frankly. 'But when I saw two lads to one girl I thought I'd better wade in. But I was superfluous. You'd sorted them before I could even get out of the car.'
'No big deal with a pair of kids. I'm a head taller than either of them, for a start.' She shrugged. 'It was just reflex. I lashed out at them in sheer temper.'
'Which could have been dangerous with a couple of real criminals,' he pointed out. 'Lucky for you it was a pair of kids behind those masks.'
'Which is why I laid into them,' she said curtly, then frowned. 'How old do you think Robbie is?'
'Hard to say. Old enough to know better, certainly. Where do you live? Can I drive you there?'
'No need. I'm just down the road from my adventure, in Farthing Street. Once we reach your car I'll be fine,' she added. 'No need for you to come any further.'
But Joe insisted on seeing her right to the door of her small, end-of-terrace house. 'Will there be anyone there?'
'In that case I'll see you safely inside before I go on my way.'
About to refuse, Fen changed her mind. A little company right this minute wasn't a bad idea. Now that the episode was over she felt a bit shaky. She went round the house to the back, unlocked a door, and switched on the light in a small, bare kitchen. Then she turned to get a look at her companion, who returned the scrutiny with equal curiosity as he closed the door behind him.
Joe Tregenna was a few inches taller than her own five feet ten, slim-hipped and broad-shouldered. He wore his dishevelled brown hair long enough to curl slightly at the ends, and his eyes were a dark enough blue to look black at first glance. Like his mouth, they held a hint of humour rather at odds with the uncompromising cut of nose and chin. He wore a formal white shirt with a tie loosened at the open collar, and linen trousers that looked like part of a suit.
'I need coffee,' she said abruptly, aware she was staring, and thrust back hair even more dishevelled than his. 'How about you?'
'Please.' He smiled. 'I could do with some caffeine after the encounter with Pennington's junior underworld.'
'Take a seat. I won't be long.' Fen dumped her backpack, shrugged off her denim jacket and slung it on the back of a chair, then filled the kettle and plugged it in. She took mugs from a cupboard and milk from the refrigerator, aware all the time that Joe Tregenna's eyes were following her every move. Not that she minded. After charging to her rescue like Sir Galahad he was entitled to a good look at the maiden in distress.
She made coffee, set the mugs on the table, and sat down opposite her visitor, who chuckled suddenly. 'What's the joke?' she asked.
'I know where you live! I can't believe I actually said that to the little tyke.' He grinned at her. 'Though you weren't far behind, with your talk of deals and DNA.'
'The idea was to frighten him in terms from his beloved "telly". He obviously likes cop shows. So between us let's hope we've diverted our Robbie from a life of crime.' Fen shrugged. 'No way could I have handed him over to the police.'
He looked at her thoughtfully as he drank some coffee. 'Do you make a habit of walking home alone late at night?'
'Asking for trouble, you mean?' she retorted. 'No, I don't. My car's in for repairs. And like a fool I didn't think to ring for a taxi until I'd finished work. By then my customers had snaffled them all, which meant a forty-minute wait.'
'I work behind the bar at the Mitre.' He shook his head. 'I'm fairly new in town. I don't know that one.'
'It's a big place on the crossroads, near the area where we dropped Robbie. It used to be a coaching inn, now it's the "in" place of the moment and very busy.' Fen shrugged. 'Which is how I got the job. They were desperate for staff.'
'How long have you worked there?'
She smiled ruefully. 'Long enough to know that a trudge home is bad news after a double shift on my feet. In future I drive or take taxis.'
'I'm glad to hear it.' He finished his coffee and got up. 'It's a bad idea for any woman to walk alone at night. And for someone with your looks it's madness,' he added casually.
Fen took her looks for granted. But Joe Tregenna's offhand remark pleased her rather a lot. Even with the sting in the tail. 'It's not a habit of mine, Mr Tregenna.'
He raised an eyebrow. 'Can't we cut the formality?'
'Right. Thank you, Joe.' She smiled, and held out her hand.
He held on to it for a second. 'I was only too glad to help—' He broke off as the phone at his belt began beeping. 'Excuse me.'
Fen busied herself with rinsing the coffee mugs, doing her best to block her ears to what was obviously not the happiest of conversations.
'For the last time, Melissa,' she heard Joe say eventually. 'I was delayed. I'm not even home yet. I'll ring you tomorrow. Goodnight.' He looked at Fen. 'Sorry about that,' he said brusquely, putting the phone back. 'I forgot to ring the lady I dined with.'
'Tell her it was my fault.'
He shook his head, the humour back in his eyes. 'Somehow, Miss Fen Dysart, I think that would do far more harm than good.'
'If that's a compliment, thank you.' She hesitated for a moment, then gave in to curiosity and asked what had brought him to Pennington.
'I sell insurance.'
'Really?' she said, surprised it wasn't something more high-powered. 'Thanks again for coming to my rescue.' 'My pleasure.' He paused. 'Do you live here alone?'
'Then make sure you lock up securely behind me. Goodnight.'
Because her new home had no shower, Fen was rinsing her hair clean under the bathroom taps when reaction finally caught up with her. Shivering, she pulled the plug, hopped out of the coffin-like tub and wrapped herself in a towelling robe. She switched her hairdryer to the hottest setting, and the moment her hair was dry enough pulled on pyjamas for once and burrowed under the covers. But she took a long time to get to sleep. And when she did dreams woke her and rocketed her bolt upright, sweating and scrabbling for the light switch as she heaped curses on young Robbie's head for giving her nightmares.* * *
'You look a bit fragile, Fen,' said the owner of the Mitre next morning.
She explained about the near-mugging of the night before, and got bawled out by Tim Mathias for not asking someone for a lift home.
'I didn't think about it until it was too late. Anyway, I get the car back this afternoon, so no more transport problems.'
Once the lunchtime session was over Fen went to collect her car, then drove back to the Mitre to find Tim using the full battery of his charm on some of his female staff. When Fen asked what was going there was a ripple of laughter and one of them pointed a dramatic finger at her.
'Fen's your best bet, Tim,' said Jilly, grinning. 'She can do it, no problem.'
'Do what?' demanded Fen with suspicion.
Tim eyed his newest recruit speculatively. 'You know that this is live music night in the piano bar?'
She nodded. 'But if Martin's off sick it's no use asking me to fill in; I can't play a note.'
'Martin's fine. The problem is Diane, our sexy songstress.' Tim scowled. 'She's lost her voice. We'll have her fans streaming in to spend good money on drinks, but when they find her missing they probably won't stay to buy more. How the devil did the woman manage to lose her voice in the middle of a heat wave?'
'I don't suppose she did it on purpose—' Fen broke off, staring at him as the penny dropped. 'Wait a minute. Why are you looking at me?'
'I've heard you singing when no one's around—not bad at all, in a breathless kind of way.' Tim grinned. 'Come on, Fen. It's only tonight. I'll get Martin to come in for a quick run-through, now while it's quiet, then tonight you just croon a few standards into a microphone for a couple of sets. Easy as pie.'
Laughing at the loud encouragement from her joshing colleagues, she shook her head. 'Not a chance. I'm not good enough.'
'Of course you are. We're not talking grand opera. And,' he added coaxingly, 'I'll pay you double your money.'
Fen's eyebrows rose. 'You mean that?'
Tim laid a hand on his heart. 'Would I lie?'
She thought it over, reminding herself why she'd come here asking for a job at the Mitre in the first place. This would add fuel to the fire. And she could certainly do with the money. 'All right, I'll do it. But for one night only,' she added, to cheers from the others.
'Done,' said Tim jubilantly. 'Remember Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys?'
'Certainly not. I'm too young!' Fen grinned. 'Actually, I do remember. But I'm a lanky brunette, not a fragile blonde, and I don't have a shiny red dress.' She glanced down at her uniform white blouse and black skirt. 'Talking of dresses, I suppose I won't do as I am?'
'Hell, no,' said Tim bluntly. 'Surely you can come up with something sexy, like the stuff Diane wears?'
'A beanpole like me?' she jeered. 'I don't do sexy. But if I can dash home after my session with Martin, I'll find something.'
'Take a couple of hours. You're not due on until eight-thirty.'