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Dominic knocked on the white screen door and took a step back. His eyes swept back and forth between the wide front porch of the aging country home and the spacious yard that surrounded it. An enormous live oak tree dominated the yard, and a wooden swing suspended from the lowest branch swung softly in the breeze. It was summertime in Tallahassee, Florida, and the grass was deep green and fragrant due to all of the recent afternoon rains. Dragonflies darted around the bushes, and a group of yellow butterflies congregated on the ground near the driveway. The setting was picturesque and almost looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.
It would have been a great place to sit and relax, if he wasn't on such an important mission.
Dominic turned and knocked again, bending slightly to see if he could catch a glimpse of anyone at home through the large open window. He didn't hear anything except his own feet making the porch floorboards creak and the soft squeak of the screen door as it moved slightly on its old rusted hinges.
He saw the barrel of the rifle out of the corner of his eye just a split second before he heard the woman's threatening voice coming from the side of the wraparound porch.
He turned and raised his hands slowly. A woman dressed in faded jeans, an old burgundy T-shirt and a Florida State baseball cap approached him pointing a rifle straight at his heart. Her eyes were an electrifying blue that seemed to drill right through him. They were angry yet fearful at the same time, and her gaze swept over him very carefully, taking stock of him from head to toe. Her blond hair was pulled back and lay in a long braid down her back, and her lips were set in a thin line of determination. When she spoke, her voice was low and threatening. "You want to explain what you're doing on my front porch?"
Dominic kept his hands up, hoping his passive stance would put the lady at ease. "U.S. Deputy Marshal, ma'am. I just want to ask you a few questions."
The woman's eyes narrowed. "Prove it."
"Okay. I have my badge and ID in my back pocket. Can I reach for it without you shooting me?"
She eyed him warily but finally nodded, keeping the rifle trained on his chest. Dominic could tell she had noticed the 9 mm pistol strapped to his hip and was keeping a close eye on his hands. He slowly reached his right hand behind him and pulled out his ID wallet. He flipped it open and held it up to her.
"Drop it and step back."
Dominic obeyed, considering whether or not it was worth it to try to make a grab for the rifle when she picked up the wallet. Although he was sure he could overpower her and wrench the rifle out of her hands, from the way her eyes were filled with hard, gritty determination, he wasn't entirely certain he could do it without hurting her. He made his decision and took a step back, keeping his hands held high. At this point, it wasn't worth the risk. After all, she wasn't the fugitive he was searching for. She was just the missing man's sister.
He let her get the wallet without incident and watched as she examined his credentials. She looked back and forth between the photo on the ID and his face, her suspicious blue eyes carefully studying his features.
"I think you can get a badge like this on eBay for about five bucks."
Dominic shook his head and smiled, hoping to pacify her. "No, ma'am, you can't. It's a real badge, and I'm a real U.S. Deputy Marshal. Look, lady, if I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already. I'm just here to ask some questions. That's it."
The rifle never wavered in her hands. "Just take your fake ID and get off my property. I don't want to answer any of your questions no matter who you are."
"Actually, you don't have a choice. Please put the rifle down, ma'am. You're threatening a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon. That's a felony, you know."
He watched her eyes carefully and could see her actually considering his words and weighing out the truth of them. There was wariness in those blue depths, as well as a strength of purpose that he actually found himself admiring.
A moment passed, then another. Finally his words seemed to sink in, and she made her decision and took a step back. "I don't want any trouble. I just want you to leave. Like I said before, you need to just take your questions and get out of here." She motioned with the barrel. "Get off my porch. Now."
The balance of power seemed to shift ever so slightly with her small retreat. Dominic took advantage of it and took a step forward, then another. He was a large man, nearly a foot taller than the woman's five foot six inches, and he used his height to tower over her with an intimidating stance. He was focused on one thing and one thing only at the moment, and that was getting that rifle away from her before someone got shot.
"You can answer my questions here or you can answer them downtown. Either way, you're going to put that rifle down." He took another step. "You must be Jessica Blake. You're a schoolteacher, right? Well, Ms. Blake, like I said, you're assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon. All I want to do is ask you a few questions. Put the gun down." He paused, his hands still up in a sign of surrender. "Please, Ms. Blake. I'm not going to hurt you. I promise."
He watched her carefully, but her aim still didn't waver, despite his plea. What had her so spooked? The whole scenario didn't make sense. He could tell she was scared of him, but he couldn't figure out why. If she didn't think he was a legitimate marshal, who did she think he worked for?
"Ms. Blake, please give me a chance. I only need a few minutes of your time, and then I'll be out of here."
Jessica gritted her teeth and finally raised the barrel so it was no longer pointing at his chest. Her anger was evident in her stance, as was her fear. "You'd better not be lying."
Dominic swiftly eliminated the remaining space between them with two large steps and pulled the rifle from her hands, then flipped on the safety and ejected the cartridges. It was a Winchester .38 with plenty of kill-power, and he wasn't about to take any chances. When he was sure the gun was empty and safe, he handed it back to her but pocketed the bullets.
"Is that how you greet all of your visitors?" he couldn't help asking.
Jessica bit her bottom lip, suddenly appearing vulnerable for the first time in their encounter. She leaned the rifle against the wall and took a step back, then looked nervously around her as if seeking a route off the porch and into the trees if she needed one. She definitely didn't trust him, that was for sure, and Dominic wanted to know why. This was not the normal reaction he received when he was just out asking questions.
He took a deep breath, then slowly put his hands on his hips, trying to make his movements as nonthreat-ening as possible as he considered Jessica Blake. The woman before him was an enigma. He'd read all the information they had on her before coming. He knew her middle name, her date of birth, her social security number and all about the speeding tickets she'd gotten when she was sixteen. But nothing in her file mentioned just how striking her eyes were. He'd never seen anyone with eyes like that, and he felt a surge of attraction, even though she had a smudge of dirt on her cheek and was wearing faded and shapeless work clothes. Still, he couldn't help but notice the fine sheen of perspiration that covered her skin, in spite of the cool breeze.
Dominic studied her carefully from a law enforcement officer's perspective, trying to figure her out. She kept moving her hands in a nervous gesture, and her eyes were darting around as if she was expecting someone or something to jump out on the porch with them. There was clearly something going on here that was way out of the ordinary. He'd had guns pointed at him before, but certainly not by country schoolteachers with long blond hair and pretty blue eyes. The way she held herself and her expressions made it look as if she were hiding something, but Dominic had absolutely no idea what it could be. He had come expecting to ask a few questions and leave, but now he was intrigued, and couldn't leave until the puzzle of Jessica Blake was investigated and solved.
"Okay," she said roughly, breaking his train of thought. "You've got my bullets now. Ask your questions and be on your way, Mr. U.S. Deputy Marshal."
Dominic motioned toward the door, enjoying the way the words "U.S. Deputy Marshal" rolled off her tongue. She had the local Southern drawl, and without her threatening tone, her voice was now sweet and melodious, despite the slight tremor it still contained. He took a step toward her front door. "Could we sit down for a minute?"
Jessica shook her head and quickly blocked the doorway, nearly tripping as she hurried to keep him away from the door. What was inside that she didn't want him to see? Dominic raised an eyebrow.
"What's going on, Ms. Blake?"
Jessica shrugged, trying to appear carefree but failing miserably in the attempt. She was evidently not very good at subterfuge. "You said you only needed a few minutes. Just ask your questions out here."
Dominic sniffed. "Is that gas I smell? I think you might have a leak. That can be really dangerous, you know. I'd better take a look before the house explodes."
"Wait " She grabbed his arm and pulled, but she was no match for his strength, and he moved effortlessly by her. He stopped just inside the door and froze, taking in the scene.
The place had been ransacked. The couch had been ripped to shreds, and foam stuffing was strewn throughout the living room. Glass dishes and knickknacks were smashed in little pieces all over, and books and a myriad of other items littered the floor.
He turned to Jessica, his eyes filled with concern. "Is there anybody else in the house?"
She shook her head. "Not anymore. I live alone, and whoever did this is long gone."
Dominic stepped over a broken radio and headed toward the kitchen. It too had been destroyed. The table and chairs were broken, and damaged appliances and kitchen utensils had been dumped on the light blue linoleum floor. The cabinet doors were open, and canned goods and staples had all been swept from their shelves. He left the kitchen and slowly checked the rest of the house. Each room had a similar level of destruction. It looked as if a tornado had blown through and left nothing but devastation in its wake.
He blew out a breath and shook his head. No wonder she was scared. Someone had definitely sent her a message, and he had the uneasy feeling that he knew exactly who that someone had been. This case was getting more complicated by the minute.
Jessica had followed him into the kitchen but didn't follow him through the rest of the house. She went back on the porch and waited patiently for him to come back outside. She couldn't look at the inside of the house anymore without crying anyway. Everything she owned, with few exceptions, was now in pieces and totally destroyed. What made it even worse was that there was a law enforcement officer in there right now surveying the damage, and she couldn't explain the mess without putting her brother's life in danger.
She sank down on the steps, frightened and unsure. It was all she could do not to grab her keys and drive away as fast as her truck could carry her. But. There was always a but. In this case, running wouldn't solve anything. She knew that. She closed her eyes and leaned against the front porch rail, rallying her strength for the battle ahead and trying to figure a way out of her predicament.
A few minutes later she heard the screen door open and close and the creaks of the porch as he crossed to sit down beside her. Several moments passed before he spoke. "That's quite a scene in there."
Jessica nodded without looking at him. It was hard to meet his eyes now that he'd seen the damage and would undoubtedly want an explanation. "That's why I didn't want you to go in there."
"Yeah, I guessed that." He paused. "Do you know who did it?"
"Do you know why they did it?"
Jessica took a deep breath. She didn't have any proof, but she had her suspicions. She didn't want to lie to the man, but until she knew more, she couldn't tell him the truth either. She chose to evade the issue. "Don't worry about it. It's my problem, okay?"
"No, it's not okay. Would you like for me to call in the crime tech guys and have them search for fingerprints? They might not find anything, but I'll make the call if you want me to."
For the first time, she met his eyes, deep gray and so gentle and concerned that she almost cried. But she couldn't trust him. She couldn't trust anyone when there was so much at stake. "No. I'm not filing a report or pressing charges. I'll deal with it myself. Like I said, it's my problem."
"Is that why you pointed your gun at me?"
She looked away again, embarrassed. She was a schoolteacher, after all. She didn't usually go around threatening people with a high-powered rifle, especially law enforcement officers. Deputy Dominic Sullivan was no small man either, and had broad shoulders and a muscular build that testified to his strength. His closely-cropped blond hair and chiseled features gave him a tough, military appearance, and the more she thought about it, the more she realized how foolhardy her actions had actually been. This man was a formidable foe. "Yes. I'm sorry about that." She could tell he wouldn't leave without a better explanation, but she also knew she'd have to keep it vague. "I was working out in the barn earlier when somebody hit me over the head and knocked me out. When I woke up, I came up to the house and found it like it is now. Then I heard you out on the porch, and I didn't know what to think."
Dominic gave her a friendly smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." He paused, as if considering his options, then pushed forward. "I came here today because I'm looking for your brother Michael Blake. I need you to help me find him."
Jessica looked up quickly, her eyes filled with suspicion. "Why?"
Dominic drew his lips into a thin line. "Well, that's actually rather difficult to explain."
Jessica crossed her arms, undaunted. Why was a U.S. Marshal looking for her brother? She had to find out and make some sense out of everything that was happening to her today. "Why don't you try and simplify it for me?"
Dominic paused a moment, then nodded. "Okay. I can give you the basics. Michael Blake has been working at a company called Coastal up in Atlanta."