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In Harm's Way
By Irene Hannon
Revell BooksCopyright © 2010 Irene Hannon
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Chapter OneOne Month Later
What a joke.
Rachel Sutton tapped her foot on the tile floor by the pickup counter, sighed, and checked her watch. Again. A ten-minute wait did not qualify as fast. At this rate, she'd have to push the speed limit and inhale her lunch or risk being tardy for her first class of the afternoon.
"Rachel!" A harried clerk plopped her order on the counter as he called her name.
Elbowing her way through the crowd, Rachel snagged the large bag of sandwiches and chips and settled it into the cardboard tray between two soft drinks. Juggling her purchases, she plowed through the sea of customers and pushed the glass door open with her shoulder.
Unseasonable spring-like temperatures greeted her, an early February reprieve from the past month's harsh weather. If the throng around her was any indication, the nice weather had brought everyone in St. Louis out of hibernation. And no one appeared to be in a hurry. Didn't any of these people have jobs? Commitments? Schedules to keep?
Dodging a stubborn patch of ice, she trudged toward the last spot in the parking lot, where her older-model Camry was squeezed in next to the mountain of plowed snow piled beside the dumpster. Chill out, Rachel, she counseled herself. The world won't end if you're five minutes late for class.
But the pep talk didn't do much to calm her tense nerves. And for the dozenth time in the past few weeks, she tried to figure out why she felt so stressed and on edge. It didn't make sense. Her life was good, her career fulfilling. She loved teaching music to grade schoolers. Playing piano during high tea on Sundays at one of St. Louis's most elegant hotels was a highlight of her week. Her young piano students were a joy. And she'd found a way to indulge her artistic leanings by starting a very successful mural-painting business on the side. There was no reason for her recent unease.
Yet she couldn't shake it. She hadn't had a good night's sleep in more than a month, and her patience was at an all-time low. Ten days ago, she'd nitpicked one of her piano student's technique until the poor child was almost in tears. Last week, she'd refused to kitsch up a mural with Victorian curlicues, much to the annoyance of a well-paying client. Yesterday she'd snapped at Marta when her co-worker tried to tease a smile out of her.
That display of bad temper was the very reason she was battling the noontime crowd at this popular outlet. Today's lunch was a peace offering-even if she'd never felt less peaceful in her life.
Sidestepping a puddle, Rachel shifted the tray, balancing it in one hand while she dug in her shoulder purse for her keys. Marta had meant well yesterday, she conceded as she edged between her car and the mound of melting snow on the passenger side. She did need to lighten up. The frown imbedded in her forehead was fast becoming a permanent addition. And it was out of character. In general, Rachel was upbeat, patient, and calm. She had no idea why her usual tranquility had evaporated, leaving an unnerving jumpiness in its place.
As if to underscore that point, the horn in the car next to her blared as the owner unlocked it with the remote from across the parking lot. Rachel's hand jerked, and she watched in dismay as the drinks tottered. Somehow she managed to juggle them back to stability, but her luck ran out with the bag of sandwiches. It took a nosedive into the melting pile of snow.
Disgusted, she set the tray on her trunk and bent to retrieve the bag. This whole lunch thing was turning out to be a disaster.
As she snagged the top of the white sack and rescued it from the pile of dirty, melting snow, a tuft of bright orange yarn peeked out at her from beneath the mound. A knit cap perhaps. Or the end of a scarf. No doubt lost in the parking lot on a snowy, windy night and later swept aside as the plows barreled through.
After depositing the food on the front passenger seat, she poked at the orange clump with the toe of her boot. If she wanted to be a good Samaritan, she could dig it out and add it to the shop's lost and found collection. But it didn't seem worth the effort. It may have been buried for a month. The person who'd lost it would have given up all hope of finding it by now.
Suddenly her toe dislodged a large chunk of ice, and a button eye blinked back at her.
So much for her cap and scarf theory. Judging by the patched face that was emerging as she nicked away the ice and snow, the object buried under the pile of frozen slush was a well-loved Raggedy Ann doll. One that would be missed.
That put a whole different light on the situation.
She knew it was foolish, but for some reason Rachel couldn't bring herself to abandon the doll in the parking lot. On the off chance a mother was desperately searching for her daughter's beloved doll, Rachel decided to dig it out and deposit it in the restaurant's lost and found.
Retrieving the ice scraper from the floor of her front seat, she went to work on the frozen snow caked around the doll. The warm sun had softened the surface, but the deeper she dug, the more ice-like the snow became.
"Excuse me, ma'am ... is there a problem? Can I help you with something?"
Rachel shifted around. An older man, white sandwich bag in hand, was regarding her from under arched, shaggy gray brows. "No. I'm ... uh ... just trying to rescue this doll."
"Is it yours?"
"No." Warmth flooded her cheeks. "But I imagine the little girl who lost it would like to get it back."
The man moved closer and bent down to give the jointed cloth leg an experimental tug. It didn't budge. "I don't know. It's stuck pretty good." He backed up and regarded the filthy, sodden doll. "Besides, I'm not sure the little girl's mother would want it back. It has to be full of germs." He regarded his damp fingers with an expression of distaste.
Rachel surveyed the doll, exposed now except one black-mitted hand. He had a point. The frayed gingham dress was stained, the threadbare white apron gray with dirt. "You're probably right."
"It was a nice thought, though," the man offered.
"Thanks." Rachel shot him a half smile and rose, tossing the ice scraper into the backseat.
"Well ... enjoy your lunch." He hefted his bag in salute and continued toward his car.
Rachel started to close the door. Hesitated. Gave the Raggedy Ann one more look. It seemed so forlorn, lying there abandoned in a puddle of muddy water. Yet she doubted the restaurant would appreciate her hauling a dirty, dripping doll across the tile floor to the lost and found.
But she could display it in some prominent place in the parking lot. That way, if the mother frequented this restaurant, she might see it-and could reclaim it if she chose. Scanning the property, she spotted an air-conditioning unit. Perfect.
Armed with a plan, Rachel chipped the remaining snow away from the doll's hand with her boot and bent to pick it up. As her fingers closed around the arm, she was already swiveling toward the air conditioner. If she hurried, she might be able to sit for five minutes with Marta and eat part of her-
Two steps toward her destination, Rachel was blindsided by a sudden rush of adrenaline. Her pulse rocketed, and she leaned against the car, sucking in a sharp breath as the world tilted. Her whole body began to tremble, and the doll slipped from her grasp, falling to the ground.
As quickly as the violent reaction had gripped her, it disappeared. Her pulse slowed, her lungs kicked in again, the world righted itself.
What on earth had just happened?
Aftershocks rippled through her, robbing her legs of strength. She clung to the back of her car, scanning the parking lot for an explanation. Searching for anything out of the ordinary that could have triggered such an intense reaction.
But the scene appeared normal. People were walking in and out of the restaurant, talking on cell phones, laughing together, juggling bags of sandwiches. The sky was blue, the sun was shining. A convertible drove past, top down in honor of the unseasonable warmth, the middle-aged driver in sunglasses and shorts, the radio tuned to an old Beach Boys song.
There was nothing around her to account for what had happened moments ago.
Yet her reaction had been real. And there was only one word to describe the emotion that had rocked her.
But what had brought it on?
And why had it gone away with such dizzying speed after she dropped the doll?
Her breath hitched in her throat, and she slowly lowered her gaze to the doll. The innocuous, patched face smiled back up at her, as innocent as childhood. Was it possible that ...?
Irritated, she cut off that train of thought. She didn't believe in that kind of creepy stuff. No sane, logical person did. Whatever had prompted her reaction had nothing to do with the doll at her feet.
And she could prove it. All she had to do was pick up the doll again.
Except she didn't want to.
Annoyed, she wiped her palms on her black slacks. Now how ridiculous was that?
Clamping her lips together, she flexed her fingers and snatched up the doll.
Instantly the terror slammed into her again, gripping her lungs in a vise.
Fighting for air, Rachel held the doll at arm's length and stared at it. Sweat broke out on her brow and she began to tremble. Jarring, disjointed images and sounds crashed over her. She heard the distant cry of a baby. Sensed danger. Pain. Anguish.
This couldn't be happening.
She groped for the latch on her back door, fingers fumbling. Yanked it open. Flung the doll inside.
The panicked sensations abated at once, leaving a residue of anxiety-and urgency-in their wake.
It was almost like a message.
A call to action.
But what kind of action?
Stumped, Rachel regarded the doll beaming back at her from the seat. Odd. From a distance, she sensed no danger. Just the opposite. The doll gave her a warm, happy feeling. Only by touch did it convey a more ominous aura.
She cringed. Now she was even beginning to think in psychic terms.
Torn, Rachel scrutinized the doll. That man who'd stopped a few minutes ago had touched the doll and hadn't had any adverse reaction. Only she seemed to pick up bad vibes.
Why me? she wanted to ask the smiling face. Why pick me to dump on?
She'd have spoken the question aloud, except people would think she'd gone off the deep end. Herself included.
Besides, the real question was what to do with the doll.
Leaving it in the parking lot was no longer an option. She might not understand why it affected her the way it did, but the feelings of danger it evoked were too real-and too strong-to ignore.
She supposed she could offer it to the police. They were the danger experts, weren't they? But she could imagine the reaction she'd get if she showed up at a precinct station and told them her story.
They'd think she was nuts.
And considering how odd she'd been feeling lately, maybe she was.
Unsure how to proceed, she slammed the door, circled the trunk, and slid behind the wheel. As she put the car in gear, she glanced at the forgotten lunch on the seat beside her-and inspiration struck. Marta's husband was a police officer. She could run the whole incident by her friend and see what she recommended. Marta knew she was a serious, stable, intelligent person who wasn't given to flights of fancy. They'd shared lots of lunches and laughs over the past two years as they chatted about the antics of their students.
Marta wouldn't think she was crazy.
At least Rachel hoped not.
* * *
Marta stopped eating mid-chew and gaped at her co-worker. "That's crazy."
The bite she'd taken from the sandwich she no longer wanted stuck in Rachel's throat. "Look, I know it sounds weird. But it's true. I feel danger whenever I touch that doll."
Several beats of silence passed while Marta resumed chewing, her attention riveted on her friend. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"
"Okay. Let me get this straight. You found a doll, and when you picked it up it freaked you out."
"And where is this doll now?"
"In the backseat of my car."
"Get rid of it."
Rising, Rachel began to pace in the cluttered lounge, grateful now that she'd been running late. All the other teachers had returned to their classrooms, and she and Marta had the place to themselves. "I considered that. But I can't. I feel this sense of urgency to get it to the right person."
"And who would that be?"
"I don't know."
"You know, this is creeping me out." Marta took a long swallow of soda and drummed her fingers on the table. "It's like one of those late-night sci-fi movies you watched as a kid that gave you nightmares for weeks. I think I'll be sleeping with the light on tonight."
Folding her arms across her chest, Rachel shook her head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to freak you out too. To be honest, I hoped you might ask Joe's opinion. I thought the police might be interested."
Marta grimaced. "I'll ask if you want me to. But I've heard a few stories from him through the years about people who show up at the station claiming to be psychics and offering to help the police solve a crime."
"I'm not claiming to be a psychic. I don't even believe in psychics. In fact, I can't believe we're having this conversation." Rachel shoved her shoulder-length hair behind her ear and resettled her glasses on her nose.
Marta tipped her head. "This really got to you, didn't it?"
"Yeah." Rachel massaged her forehead and returned to the table. As she rewrapped her almost untouched sandwich, she realized her fingers were trembling. Marta, she noted with a quick shift in focus, was watching them too. She stopped fiddling with her sandwich and shoved her hands in the pockets of her slacks.
"Okay, Rachel." Marta wadded her sandwich wrapper into a tight ball. "Let me run it by Joe. I can vouch for your sanity-or I could until the past few weeks. I've never seen you this stressed. Are you sure everything's okay?"
"Yes. Everything's fine. I have no idea why I've been on edge." Rachel heard the irritation nipping at her voice and softened her tone. "But I appreciate your concern."
"Hey." Marta laid a hand on her arm. "We'll get this sorted out, okay?"
Rachel felt the pressure of tears behind her eyes. That, too, was a new-and too frequent-phenomenon in recent weeks. "Yeah."
"Maybe it's some kind of hormone thing."
"I almost wish there was a medical explanation for it."
"There might be. Set up an appointment with your doctor. In the meantime, I'll get Joe's take. Tonight's our once-a-month dinner date without the kids, meaning I'll have his undivided attention. I'll let you know what he says tomorrow, okay?"
"Yeah. Thanks. And listen ... you guys won't tell anyone about this, will you?"
"Of course not. I know how to keep my mouth shut when I have to. And Joe's the soul of discretion. Just one thing ... until I get back to you with Joe's input, stay away from that doll, okay?"
* * *
Claudia Barnes liked the soup at Le Bistro. The chef had a way with mushrooms, no question about it. And the desserts were to die for, despite the dent they put in her reporter's salary. But tonight, the conversation between the couple in the booth behind her was even better than the food.
Pulling out her notebook, Claudia opened it to a blank page and tuned in, her pen poised.
"Tell her to forget it." A man's voice.
"But Joe, she's really spooked by this." A woman speaking now. "And Rachel isn't the type to go for any of that supernatural stuff. We've worked together for two years, and she's very levelheaded. She thinks it's weird too."
Excerpted from In Harm's Way by Irene Hannon Copyright © 2010 by Irene Hannon. Excerpted by permission.
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