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Rafe Ellersley was kind of like Snoopyalways daydreaming about things he'd rather be doing, such as going fishing. Unlike Snoopy, he didn't have a doghouse to lie atop, just a cramped cubicle at the Australian tax office.
"I need a volunteer for an audit in Summerside." Larry Kiefer, balding and forty, with a slight gut, walked among the cubicles filled with tax accountants at the Australian tax office. "Who's interested?"
Rafe shot to his feet. "I'll do it." He'd have gone anywhere just to get out of the office, but Summer-side was ace. A small bayside village southeast of Melbourne, it was prime red snapper territory.
Sunshine, blue sky and salt water. Oh, yeah.
Larry pretended not to see him. "Anyone? This lady" He consulted a file folder in his hand. "Lexie Thatcher is a portrait artist. She hasn't filed a return in four years."
Rafe cleared his throat. "Larry, I said I'd do it."
His colleagues nearby glanced at him, then at Larry. They didn't say a word. It was unwritten code that if someone put up their hand for a case, everyone else would bow out. One by one, they bent their heads and went back to work.
Rafe remained standing. But not quite as tall as before.
His previous audit hadn't gone so well .
Larry made a sour face and shook his head. He was the boss. He could simply assign the case to whomever he chose. But Rafe knew he tried to hand the out-of-town files to whomever was interested.
He walked slowly over to Rafe's cubicle, gave a last glance around then, when no one looked up, he said to Rafe, "What makes you think you're the right guy for this job?"
"I want to make up for last time." Rafe fumbled for an antacid and popped it in his mouth. His five-year plan depended on keeping his position and if that meant pretending to be sorry for what he'd done, so be it. The great fishing would be a bonus.
Larry checked out Rafe's cubicle. The partition walls were papered with photos of boats, his dog Murphy and Far Side cartoons he'd clipped out of the newspaper.
"Your last audit, Mrs. Caporetto, was working under the table and collecting welfare," Larry reminded him. "She wasn't paying a cent of tax on her waitressing income. Do you think that's fair to other taxpayers?"
"She was supporting her son who had cancer, plus his three children," Rafe said, arguing anyway, to defend Mrs. Caporetto, and himself. "Like I told you, the dole wasn't enough money for them all to live on. Not with the meds her son needed."
"We've been through this. That's not our problem," Larry said wearily. "You deliberately turned a blind eye and didn't impose penalties when they were clearly called for. It's not your job to make sure auditees pay the least amount of taxes possible. You do know that, don't you?"
Rafe nodded. He picked up a pen, clicking it in and out. Across the way, his buddy Chris Talbot faced his computer screen, heavy blond hair falling over his glasses, and pretended not to be listening.
"Not paying taxes is like stealing from the government," Larry went on. "You're not some Robin Hood."
Rafe bit his lip.
"It's essential for tax auditors to ?" Larry prompted, waiting for Rafe to complete the sentence.
"Maintain an independent state of mind," Rafe intoned. It was the mantra of the tax office, ingrained in all tax auditors from day one.
Larry cocked his egg-shaped head to glance at Rafe's photos of fishing boats. "Did you ever think maybe you're not cut out to be an accountant?"
"I'm cut out for it." Rafe chewed the softening remains of the antacid tablet. "I can do it."
One more year and he would have saved enough money to put a down payment on a charter fishing boat. His dream was to take groups out on the weekend. Hell, why stop at the weekend? Someday he wanted to make fishing charters his livelihood.
If he could hang on to this job until then.
Lose it, and he wouldn't easily find another that paid this well. Especially if he got fired.
"You could be one of the best accountants I've got," Larry said. "Question is, do you have the balls to be that guy?"
Rafe swallowed and nodded again. "You can count on me."
"This woman." Larry waved the file folder. "Hasn't responded to letters, emails or phone calls. She's going to be a tough nut to crack." He dropped the file on Rafe's desk. "Screw this one up and " He walked away, leaving the rest hanging.
Rafe swallowed. He didn't need Larry to spell things out to know the consequences would be dire.
Lexie Thatcher was a crystal lying on the sandy bottom of a quiet pond. Calm and peaceful. She was as smooth and round as a washed pebble but perfectly clear. Crystal clear. Sunlight filtering through the water filled her with a pure white light.
Thoughts crept in like dark tendrils of water weedsher stalled portrait of Sienna, her parents' disintegrating marriage, the letter from the tax office Gently she pushed each thought away. Calm. Peace. Light.
Sienna's portrait was missing a crucial element. What was it? Why was she blocked? The deadline was approaching.
Thirty-eight years old last week.
Time was ticking.
Don't think. Empty the mind. Slow the breathing.
Light. Peace. Calm. Peace. Calm Ding-dong.
Lexie crashed to earth with a jerk. Now she felt the rough nap of the carpet beneath her palms, the weight of her legs, her yoga top bunched at her waist. The noisy thoughts came awake in her head, all clamoring for attention at once, like chattering monkeys.
The bell rang again. Ding-dong.
With a sigh she dragged herself upright and padded barefoot to the front door, pushing a hand through her long blond curls, straightening her filmy cotton skirt. Three tiny bells around her right ankle tinkled with each step.
She hoped it was Andrew, the sweet little boy from next door, come to fetch the ball he was forever accidentally throwing over the fence. She loved his adorable freckled face and big green eyes. Lexie, may I get my ball?
She opened the door, her gaze pitched to knee level. "Hey, Andrew"
Not a four-year-old boy with curly red hair.
Charcoal-gray pant legs with a razor-sharp crease and black crocodile-skin shoes. Her gaze skimmed up the long lean figure in the well-cut suit with the white shirt open at the neck. A ripe mouth framed by dark stubble and dark eyes topped by thick black eyebrows. His hair was pushed back showing a strong widow's peak and he had a dark mole high on his right cheek.
He was sexy. And young.
A buzz of awareness hummed through her despite the fact that she had to be at least ten years older than he was. "What can I do for you?"
"Rafe Ellersley." He produced a business card and held it up for her to see. "Australian Taxation Office."
She slammed the door in his face.
She stood there, listening to her heart gallop, knowing he hadn't moved from her welcome mat. Yes, very mature.
Lexie put her hand on the knob. Sucking in a breath, she opened the door again. "Sorry. That was dumb."
"I'm used to it." His gaze started to drift down her formfitting sleeveless top then flicked back to her eyes. "I normally don't just show up on people's doorsteps. But when people don't respond to letters or phone calls, a personal visit is the next step."
There had been letters, which she'd set aside to deal with later. And then there were the phone messages which she'd ignored because she'd been painting and didn't want to be disturbed. Then when she'd gotten blocked she'd decided their negative energy was her problem and, whoops, they were accidentally-on-purpose deleted. And now her bad habit of procrastination had come around to bite her on the butt.
She breathed deep into her belly to stem her rising panic. "I've been very busy with my work. Is there a problem?"
Rafe set his briefcase on the mat at his feet. "You're being audited."
Her stomach tightened, trapping her breath.
"Yes. I'm here to go over your accounts with you and assess taxes owed for the period of delinquency." He glanced over her shoulder into the small foyer. "Is this a good time?"
"No." Her house was a mess, her work in limbo, her life in chaos. "I'm busy, very busy. I must get back to what I was doing."
Lying on the floor pretending to be a crystal. It was vital to her creativity but hard to explain to a sexy young man in a suit. She started to close the door.
Quick as a wink he wedged a polished shoe
between the door and the jamb. "I understand you're an artist."
"Y-yes," she said warily. She could imagine what tax accountants thought of artistsabout as useful to society as bicycles were to fish. "I'm working on a portrait for the Archibald Prize."
"I'll try not to take up too much of your time. May I come in?"
"As I said, I'm busy. I'll file my tax return soon. Promise. On my honor and all that." She gave the door another shove.
His foot didn't budge. With his leg braced, his thigh muscle was outlined against his pant leg. "Then I'll come back later. What time do you finish for the day?"
"I work all hours. Right through the night sometimes, when things are flowing."
In reality, she hadn't done any work on Sienna's portrait for weeks but he didn't need to know that. She hadn't been completely idle, having whipped off a couple of small seascapes of Summerside Bay for the tourist trade. She just hadn't done anything important.
"I'll come back tomorrow," he said.
"I'll be busy then, too!"
Again she pushed on the door to no avail. No doubt the Australian Taxation Office issued steel-reinforced shoes for cases like hers.
Apparently the agents were reinforced with steel, too. His black eyes glinted; his smile was grim. "Ms. Thatcher, you haven't filed a tax return in four years. I will come back every day. I will camp on your doorstep if necessary, until you make the time to go through your accounts. Whether it takes weeks or months is of no difference to me. I have a job to do and I will do it." He let his words sink in before he added almost casually, "If you don't comply, I have the authority to call in the Federal Police."
A flutter of panic made her reconsider the situation. But she hadn't done anything wrong. True, she hadn't filed her taxes but then again, she didn't think she'd made enough money to pay tax. This was all a misunderstanding that would be cleared up quickly once he'd had a look at her accounts.
"Okay," she capitulated, opening the door wider. "Come in. Let's get this over with. Shoes off, please. I have a friend with a baby who's still crawling."
Color tinged his cheeks as he bent to remove his croc-skin loafers. Avoiding her gaze, he placed the shoes neatly beside her sandals, making them look tiny by comparison. Then she saw the reason for his embarrassment. His fourth toe poked through a hole in the left sock.
Suddenly Rafe Ellersley seemed less daunting, more human. She would have preferred to see him as the enemy.
Lexie led him into the sunny living room. Visible through the big window was the backyard containing a trampoline, her detached studio and, in the corner, a koi pond beneath a red-flowering camellia tree. She moved some art books off an armchair. "Have a seat."
He lowered himself onto faded chintz covered in overblown pink roses, like Ferdinand the Bull in a field of flowers. Lexie sat opposite on the matching couch beneath the window, squished in between her sleeping Burmese cats, Yin and Yang. She tucked her legs up cross-legged and pulled down her full skirt.
"Why am I being audited?" she asked. "Is it random or are you guys targeting starving artists this year?"
"The tax office is focusing on small businesses," he explained with a shrug. "This is an election year. The government wants to be seen to be doing its job."
"But why me?" Lexie asked. "I'm a small fish."
"Small fish, big fish, they all get caught eventually. As I said, you haven't filed a tax return for the past four years." He whipped out a small notebook and consulted it. "Yet last financial year you sold two paintings to an American tourist for forty thousand dollars."
"Oh, right." Lexie pressed paint-stained fingers to her mouth. They'd been her best sales to date. How could she have forgotten them? "I meant to declare them, honest." She paused. "Er, how did you find out?"