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Jackson Malone watched the woman from the surveillance monitor on his desk. She was either the most inept Christmas tree decorator in the state, or else
Jackson didn't want to go there yet.
By nature, he wasn't a trusting man, and now that he had become a father his distrust was stronger than ever. That probably had something to do with the threat he'd received just that morning.
He glanced at the letter, the warning spelled out in letters cut from magazines.
"Jackson Malone, I won't forgive and forget. Watch your back."
It was the third one he'd received in the past month. No name. No postmark. The others had been placed on his car windshield, but not this one. This particular letter had been left on the sidewalk outside his downtown San Antonio office building. It'd been a blind spot for security cameras, so there was no footage of the person who had left it for the night watchman to find, but Jackson had some ideas. After Christmas, he'd deal with it.
Or maybe sooner.
His attention went back to the surveillance monitor and the inept tree decorator. The leggy brunette was still trying to untangle some Christmas lights, a task she'd been at for the better part of an hour. She was perched on the lower rung of a ladder next to the ten-foot-tall blue spruce. She had a wad of lights in her hands, but her attention was everywhere but on the task she'd been hired to do. Unlike the others who had accompanied her.
On the split screen, Jackson could see there was a crew on the grounds, decorating the trees and shrubs of his country estate. Another woman was in the great room arranging greenery and crystal angels around the massive stone fireplace. Another pair was on the porch dealing with the door and white marble columns.
So who was this woman on the ladder?
And was she doing surveillance for a robbery, or God knows what else?
He looked through the names of the work crew that his groundskeeper had provided. Her name was either Marita Hernandez or Ann Reeves. Since she wasn't Hispanic, he was betting she was the latter.
Jackson grabbed the phone from his desk and called Evan Young, his business manager. It was three days before Christmas, and Malone Investments was closed for a two-week holiday break, but as Jackson expected, Evan was in his office because he gave new meaning to the word workaholic.
Jackson had once given Evan a run for his money in the hours-at-work department, but since his son, Caden, had come into his life, Jackson had cut way back, not just on the hours, but on his commitment to the job. These days no one could accuse him of being married to his company.
"Evan," Jackson greeted, and even though he was eager to get down to business, he paused and waited for Evan, just in case the man wanted to mention the significance of this particular date.
"No need to call and check up on me," Evan stated. His voice was void of any emotion. "I'm doing fine."
Jackson doubted that was anywhere near the truth. It was the six-month anniversary of Sybil Barnwell's death. She was Evan's fiancée. Evan might be coldblooded in business, but Jackson knew that the couple had been in love, and even though Evan had refused to take much time off, he'd been devastated by Sybil's death.
And Jackson suspected that, deep down, Evan blamed him for what had happened. Hell, Jackson blamed himself.
"I have a possible problem," Jackson explained. Best to get right onto the business at hand, rather than dive back into those memories of Sybil's death. "Tap into the security feed here at the estate and zoom in on the Christmas tree decorator in the foyer. That's camera eight. Have security run the facial recognition program. I want to know who she really is."
"You think she's connected to the threatening letter left for you this morning?" Evan asked.
"Could be." And that's what he intended to find out.
Jackson ended the call, got up from his desk and headed to the foyer. It was nearly two p.m., which meant Caden would be up from his nap in a half hour or so. Waking time was Jackson's favorite part of the day, and he wanted this possible situation with the decorator resolved by then.
He went through the maze of corridors and smiled when he thought of Caden again. In another two years or so, his little boy would no doubt be riding a kiddy tricycle around the mansion on these now pristine hardwood floors. He'd be laughing, making noise, and Jackson couldn't wait.
There'd been a dark cloud over this place for too long.
Jackson kept his footsteps light, and paused at the top of the stairs so he could look down at the decorator and observe her in the flesh. She had finally made it to the point where she was actually stringing lights, but her gaze was still firing all around.
She wore jeans and a gray turtleneck sweater. Both nondescript. She definitely wouldn't stand out in those clothes. He could say the same for her short, light-brown hair and her lack of makeup.
"Looking for something?" he asked, his voice echoing through the foyer.
She gasped, obviously startled, and nearly fell off the ladder. Jackson started down the stairs in case he had to pick her up off the floor, but she managed to keep her balance, even though she dropped the lights. Some of the bulbs shattered when they smacked against the glossy marble, and bits of colored glass scattered everywhere.
"I'm, uh, decorating, of course," she said, sparing him a glance. She got off the ladder and onto her hands and knees to gather up the glass bits. "You scared me. I thought you'd be at work."
"I'm working at home today," he volunteered. In fact, he'd been in a business meeting with a client when the decorating crew arrived. It was the reason he was still wearing a suit.
Jackson walked across the foyer toward her, and glanced up at the security camera tucked in the corner behind a sconce. Evan was no doubt watching them, and probably trying to get a good shot of the woman's face so he could process it through the facial recognition program.
"Leave the glass," Jackson instructed, so she would stand. It'd give Evan a better angle of her face. "The housekeeper will take care of it."
But the woman shook her head and stayed down, and she didn't look at him when she spoke. "My boss would fire me if I didn't clean up after myself. Besides, we wouldn't want to have the floor messy when you bring your baby boy in to see the tree for the first time."
Everything inside Jackson went still.
Maybe it was the latest threatening letter, or maybe this was just his paternal instincts yelling out for him to keep Caden safe. Either way, he wanted to know who the hell this woman was.
"Who said I'd be bringing down my son to see the tree?" he challenged.
Her hand froze over a bit of broken glass, and Jackson saw her fingers trembling. That was his cue to reach down, catch onto her arm and haul her to her feet. Her expression froze, caught somewhere between shock and fear.
"I asked you a question," he reminded her.
He put his fingers beneath her chin and lifted it to force eye contact. Finally, here was something that wasn't nondescript. Her eyes were a cool ocean blue. Definitely memorable.
Jackson didn't exactly step back, but he didn't approve of the way she or her eyes made him feel. There was that hit of attraction, something he didn't intend to feel when it came to her or any other woman he distrusted.
She tried to shrug. "It's in all the newspapers that you're in the final stages of adopting a baby."
"I am." And he left it at that.
"He's four months old, I heard. The right age for really noticing the lights and decorations. Since this is his first Christmas, I just figured you'd bring him down to see the tree as soon as we were done."
That was the plan. But it wouldn't happen with this woman around.
She stepped out of his grip, turned away from him and discarded the bits of glass into a trash bag hung alongside a box of ornaments. "I hope this doesn't sound too personal, but what made you choose adoption?"
Oh, this conversation seemed well beyond personal. "Let's just say I recently had a life-altering experience, and it put things in perspective."
"Yes," she agreed, as if she knew exactly what he meant. "You survived a plane crash about six months ago. I read about that, too."
"You read a lot about me." Though he knew his survival had been a front page story in all the state's newspapers.
He'd been the only survivor among the eight people who'd been on his private jet when it had to make a crash landing. Evan's own fiancée, Sybil, who was one of Jackson's attorneys, had been killed. So had two of his department CEOs and other employees. They were all on that plane because he had insisted they accompany him to a hostile takeover meeting in Dallas. Jackson, on the other hand, had literally walked away, but he'd walked away a changed man.
A lot of lives had changed that day.
"I need to get something out of the work van," the woman mumbled.
Jackson didn't intend to let her get away that easily. He caught onto her arm again. "Who are you?"
"Ann Reeves," she quickly supplied. Again, she broke his grip.
He stepped in front of her and blocked her path. "Ann Reeves? " he repeated. "Why were you looking around the place as if you planned to steal something?"
Her eyes widened. She shook her head. A thin breath left her mouth. "I would never take anything that wasn't mine. Never."
Jackson expected her to break the eye contact, to try to move away from him again, but she didn't. She held her ground and stared at him. "Can you say the same?" she asked.
Now that was a question he hadn't expected. "Would I take something that wasn't mine?" he clarified. "It depends."
She blinked, her memorable blue eyes narrowing. "You know what I'm talking about."
No. He didn't. Nor was he sure why he'd given her that "it depends" answer. The old Jackson would have said that. And in the past he would have meant it. There'd been a time in his life when he would have acquired property, or whatever he wanted, not through illegal means exactly, but he hadn't been above stooping to down-and-dirty business tactics. That was before Caden.
Before he'd held his son and had his world and his heart turned upside down.
Jackson was about to ask her to explain her last comment when his phone rang. While still blocking her path, he took the cell from his pocket and answered it.
"Evan," he responded. "What do we have?"
"Well, she's not Ann Reeves," Evan quickly provided. "Her driver's license photo is a match to a woman named Bailey Hodges. She's thirty-four, and her address is on the north side of San Antonio."
Bailey Hodges. The name sounded familiar, but Jackson couldn't put his finger on where he'd heard it before.
"I'll have her background in a few minutes," Evan added, and he hung up.
Jackson put away his phone and got right in her face. "All right, why are you here in my home, Bailey Hodges? Did you leave that threatening letter for me?"
She opened her mouth to say something but seemed to change her mind. "What threatening letter?" And she was too surprised and concerned for that not to be a real question.
He continued to study her. "The one I sent a copy of to the San Antonio Police Department so they could investigate it." That was all Jackson intended to tell her about that matter. "Why are you here?" he repeated.
She didn't answer him. Instead, she took out a folded piece of paper from her jeans pocket. For a moment, he thought it was another threatening letter, but it was a pair of photographs that looked as if they'd been copied from the computer. She thrust the paper at him.
"Do you know either of these women?" she demanded.
He glanced at the two photographs. They were both strangers. "What does this have to do with you being here at the estate?"
"Everything," she whispered. A moment later, she repeated it.
Tired of this confusing conversation and whatever game she was playing, Jackson stepped out of her way. "It's time for you to leave."
"No?" It wasn't often anyone said that to him. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time. The woman was gutsy. Or maybe not very bright.
"Look at the pictures again, please. Perhaps the hair color isn't the same. They could have done something to alter their appearances when or if you met them. So look hard and tell me if you know one or both of them."
Jackson didn't bother looking at the photos again, and he handed the paper back at her. "I don't know them. Or you. But I do know you're lying about who you are, and I know I want you out of my house now."
She hesitated and then turned as if she might just do as he'd ordered. But she stopped. "What kind of letter did you receive?"
He mentally groaned. "I don't intend to discuss that with you."
More hesitation. "Was the threatening letter a warning about me?"
"What?" This conversation had just taken a more confusing turn. "Why would it be?"
She seemed relieved. Or something. And she waved him off. "I'll go, for now. But I can't stay away. I have to know the truth about him."
Jackson couldn't remember the last time he'd been dumbfounded, but he sure as hell was now. He watched her walk to the double entry doors and wondered if he should stop her and demand an explanation. But his phone rang again.
"Evan," he said, answering the call.
"I found out some things about Bailey Hodges," Evan started. "She's single. A graphic artist who designs promotion brochures and such. She's actually done some work for us. She was engaged, and her ex-fiancé was her business partner, but things must have soured, because he moved to Europe nearly a year ago, and she removed him from her business records."
"She did work for us," Jackson mumbled. "Maybe that's why her name sounds familiar."
"Maybe. But it's probably because she was one of the San Antonio maternity hostages."
Now that did more than just ring bells. Four months ago, a group of pregnant women, new mothers, medical staff and even some babies had been taken hostage by two masked gunmen. They'd been held for hours.
Several people had died that day, including a cop's wife.
That instantly gave Jackson a connection with her. They'd both survived something that others hadn't. It'd been the top news story for weeks, even after the two gunmen and their boss had been captured.