Jessie stumbled into the kitchen and glanced to the cat clock Hunter had given her, the eyes darting back and forth in sync with the movement of its tail. It was just six-thirty. Ordinarily, the whimsical clock produced a smile.
She tightened the belt of her robe and glared at the dirty cups and glasses piled in the sink. She grabbed a cup from the top of the heap, rinsed it, and filled it with coffee she had made more than two hours earlier, after returning from Scott Brooks'. Breaking into his house served only to open her eyes to just how irrational she had become.
She dropped into a chair at the table in the alcove of French windows and looked into the gray dawn, her hands clinched around her coffee cup. Her mind and heart in a tug of war, she bit into her lip to keep from screaming. Go back to California, get away from it all. She set down the cup and wiped her eyes. If she did go back, she faced losing Hunter, the man she loved, heart and soul.
The binoculars in the man's hands were pointed at Jessie. He wore a black leather flight jacket and Levi's with a sharp crease as straight as his long legs. The two inch heels of his snake skin cowboy boots boosted his height to six-six.
His years of training had not been wasted. His eyes took in every detail, the weary look in her face and eyes, her long graceful neck, her tense shoulders and arched back. He lowered the binoculars and allowed his mind to stray from the reason he was there. He envisioned his hands on her naked back, stroking her smooth skin. He could almost smell her. Memories of her and the hellish Colombian flight in the DC-3 were never far from his thoughts. He had warned her then that it was not over. She had been tough then, unafraid. No fear. Now, watching her, she was not that woman. He raised the binoculars and concentrated on the reason he had traveled such a long distance. The only reason, to finish it; to take care of Jessica Cameron Langdon.
The leather of his jacket creaked as he slid his hand inside to his shoulder holster. He touched the cold steel of his gun, then lowered the binoculars. Jessie Langdon had good reason to fear for her life. He watched her slender form rise from the chair and disappear from view. He had to make his move now while she was alone. He surveyed the area, then advanced cautiously toward the house.
Jessie stopped at the kitchen doorway and looked back toward the French windows, her gaze set on the reddish tinge in the eastern sky. Red sky in the morning; pilot take warning. Before the day ended, the weather would turn foul. She hoped to squeeze in an hour or so of flying between the ceremony at the university and her 3:30 appointment. Up there, she could think, make rational decisions. She continued on to the bathroom.
She turned on the shower and hooked her robe on the bathroom door. As she started to slip out of her gown, she thought she heard something. A noise from the kitchen. Hunter had a key, but it was too early for him. He would be sleeping late after his redeye flight from Seattle. She shut off the water and listened. Though she heard nothing, she felt an uneasiness. A flashback bulleted through her mind, a memory she had tried to block out.
Just as she put on her robe, she heard Fluffy, her neighbor's beagle, barking incessantly in an unaccustomed manner. The barking seemed to be coming from her back yard. She hurried to the kitchen doorway, stopping suddenly. She stood staring at the unlocked deadbolt on the backdoor, certain she had locked it last night. Panic spurred her to it. About to flip the lock, a loud knock on the door sent her heart pounding. She backed into the alcove and looked out the window. Though she could still hear Fluffy, she couldn't see her, nor could she see anyone at the door. She shrugged off what she was beginning to think as paranoia, then went to the door and yanked it open. The barrel of a twelve gauge shotgun nearly smacked her in the face. She let out a scream.
The gun almost dropped from Dixie Harrison's hands. "Good golly, I'm sorry, Jess. I didn't mean to have this thing pointed at you. I was trying to see Fluffy. You scared the bejiggers out of me."
Jessie's heart pounded double time. "What's wrong?" she asked, following Dixie's gaze to the side yard.
"Fluffy, you get back here," Dixie yelled, then turned to Jessie. "Fluffy was having a hissy fit to get out, and when I opened the door, she shot out like a light and went tearing into your yard after a man that was at your back door. He must've been seven feet tall. I got old Betsy, then hurried over as fast as I could."
The hair on Jessie's arms stood on end. She scanned the backyard now made lighter by the rising sun. "I was about to get in the shower when I thought I heard something, then I heard Fluffy barking. Thanks, Dixie." Fluffy came flying from the side yard and scooted to a stop at the door, panting, tail wagging and looking up as though saying I did good. Weak in the knees, Jessie stooped over and patted the dog's head. "Dixie, how about a cup of coffee?"
"You don't have to ask me twice." Dixie gave the dog a few affection strokes of her own. She straightened, wiped the dew from her riding boots on the doormat and followed Fluffy inside. As soon as Dixie had the door closed, Fluffy flopped down in front of it and eyed the shotgun Dixie was propping against the doorjamb.
Dixie locked the deadbolt, then went to the alcove and looked out. "That man was up to no good, Jessie. Otherwise he wouldn't have let a little piece of fur packing a bark scare him away."
Jessie set two mugs of coffee on the table, then sat in the chair across from where Dixie was getting seated. Dixie stretched her long legs out in front of her and stuffed her jeans farther into the tops of her cowboy boots.
"You're being awfully quiet about this." Dixie picked a blade of grass from the sleeve of her red turtleneck.
"Did you get a good look at him?" Jessie asked, as calmly as she could.
"I didn't see his face, but he had a good build. Too clean cut to be a thief. More like a hired killer."
"Thanks, Dixie, like I needed to hear that."
"Well, Jess, I just call it as I see it, and from what you've been up to lately, digging into the governor's life history as well as his father's, I may not be far off base. People like the Ackerman's don't usually sit still for that sort of thing. Especially with Gov campaigning for President." She propped her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her folded hands. "And just where did you go early this morning? Don't look at me like that; I heard you leave." Dixie kept her eyes on Jessie as she took a hardy drink of coffee.
Jessie glanced out the window. What Dixie said had more merit than she cared to think about. "I broke into Scott Brooks' house."
Dixie almost spit her coffee across the table. "Good golly, Jess, have you lost your mind?"
Jessie gave her a stern look. "Close."
"I take it you didn't find anything that could put him behind bars. Or did you?"
"Not unless reading about horse racing rules and thoroughbreds are a crime." The puzzled look on Dixie's face brought a weary shake of Jessie's head and a wave of her hand that said it wasn't worth discussing. "What I did find is in the trash can." She nodded to the can under the breakfast bar. "A loan agreement, I think, stating that Scott Brooks loaned money to Leo Lowenthal. Can't arrest someone for lending money."
"You can if they're a loan shark, however, I find it hard to believe that Leo Lowenthal needs to borrow money from anyone. How much money was it and what was the pay back?"
"Two million. Someone had torn off the bottom half, so I have no idea as to whether collateral was mentioned or when payment was due. I was so angry that the paper wasn't something incriminating, I tore it into a million pieces. I didn't even realize I had taken it until I got back in my car." Jessie drew in a deep breath. "I got distracted when I hid from that woman who came into the room. The garage door going up scared both of us. Apparently she wasn't supposed to be there either, because she ran back to where ever been and I slipped out one of the patio doors. You have no idea how scared I was."
Dixie shot up straight. "Jess, you've got to give this up. If you don't, you're going to end up dead or in jail."
"I know." Jessie dropped her head. "That's why I'm thinking of moving back to California."
"What about Hunter?"
"He'll have to understand. I can't live in this town anymore." Jessie held onto the small bit of control she still had. She looked back out the window. "I'm living six miles from where I saw my daughter blown to bits, strewn over a mile of this city." Tears rolled down her cheeks. "Every detail of that night is burned into my memory; Laney's screams haunt my sleep. Everywhere I go, I'm reminded that there are two men in this town who had something to do with her murder. And I haven't even gotten close to finding evidence to prove it." Jessie wiped tears from her cheeks with the sleeve of her robe. "When my mother died, my father turned to alcohol to numb his pain. Now I'm doing the same thing."
Dixie gave Jessie's hand a gently squeeze. "If you decide to leave, Hunter will understand."
"No, I don't think he will." Jessie glanced down, then looked back up. "Hunter had a sister, several years younger than him. Susan. She died ten years ago, a payback from Blake Hamilton when he and Hunter worked narcotics at LPD. Hunter caught Hamilton taking drugs from the evidence room and reported him. Hamilton swore he'd get even and started dating Susan. He got her pregnant, then arranged an abortion with a quack. They found her body on the side of a dirt road. She had bled to death. Hunter could never prove anything, but he knew Hamilton was responsible. Hunter didn't pack up and run. He thinks everyone is as strong as he is. But I'm not. I'm just not. He'll consider my leaving a slap in the face."
Jessie went to the counter for a paper towel, then took her chair. "Last week I tried to talk to him about how hard it was for me to live in Lexington. He didn't want to talk about it, said to give it time, for me to drop my investigation of Brooks and Gov, that he would continue with his own investigation. Hunter is a wonderful man, but he has some strange ideas. Old-fashioned ideas."
Dixie bobbed her head. "Yeah, the chauvinism thing. Didn't want you to get your private detective's license, wanted you to stay home, go barefoot, cook, clean. Me man, you woman sort of thing."
Jessie smiled. "He has gotten better."
"Jake never did. He was too old to change when we married, and I was too young to know any better than to obey his every command, just like my momma had done with my daddy. They married me off to Jake when I was only fourteen. Jake was forty one, had gobs of money coming in from his coal mines in Pikeville."
"Did you love Jake?"
Dixie tossed back her head and laughed. "At fourteen, I loved climbing cherry trees and riding horses bareback. Jake was good to me, let me graduate from high school. I used to dream of having a career, making decisions instead of having them made for me. Finally got him to let me take a college course through the mail, but that was as far as he'd let me go. Wanted me to have his baby, but I guess he must've been shooting blanks all those years." Her eyes showed a trace of mist. "I never realized I loved him until his heart quit beating. It was too late to tell him then." She drew in a deep breath and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "What are you going to do about your clients?"
"I only have eleven," Jessie said with a hint of sarcasm. "Most of them women, alleging their husbands are unfaithful." The corners of her mouth turned up slightly. "How about you taking over the agency? With all those true crime and detective novels you read, you would be good at it. You just said you always wanted a career."
"Thirty-eight is a little old to be starting a career. I'd never be able to get a P.I. license."
"Nothing to it; fill out a form and mail it in. Kentucky doesn't have regulations on the industry. You could have your license in a week or so, and you'd already have an office, as I have a two-year lease."
"What if your clients don't want to be passed on to someone else?"
"Don't worry; I'll take care of that. And besides, with your personality, you'll be getting more clients than you can handle. At the present, that I know of, I'm the only woman PI in Lexington. Suspicious women trying to catch their husbands being unfaithful relate better to a woman. You could still take care of your horses and go riding, set your own hours."
Dixie had been shaking her head. "I don't know, Jess." Her face brightened. "Now if you'd said be your partner, work together, I'd jump on it." She took a drink of coffee. "How about if I think this over and you think about your leaving Lexington?"
During the course of conversation, Jessie made up her mind about that. "My mind is made up. I plan to tell Hunter this morning when he comes over for breakfast."
Dixie shrugged, turned her wrist and looked at her watch. "I'd better be getting out to the stables." She looked back to Jessie. "Want to come with me? Riding may do you a world of good."
"Thanks, Dixie, maybe another time. I've got to get this place cleaned up before Hunter gets here. He's going with me to a ceremony at the University."
"Oh, yeah, the public announcement of the Laney Langdon Trust. Has Hunter or Cameron found find out anything else about who the anonymous donor is of that $5,000,000?"
"The only thing turned up came from a man at the College of Agriculture who had signed in behalf of the giver. The money had been wired from a bank in the Bahamas. That's all he would say, and was adamant that he knew absolutely nothing more."
"It's kind of creepy . . . I mean, have you thought that maybe the person read what happened to Laney, somebody like an eccentric millionaire, Howard Hughes or a John Rockefeller type person; they're dead, aren't they? But, maybe something in the newspapers touched this person's heart and he or she wanted to do something good for her. You never know."
"No you don't, but I would give anything to meet this person."
In thought, Dixie got up and scooted her chair up to the table. "Keep your doors locked and don't open them unless you know who's on the other side."
Jessie walked her to the door. "Dixie . . . I don't want to worry Hunter; would you not say anything about that man?"
Dixie gave her a stern look. "Jess, I don't believe for a moment that that's the real reason for not telling Hunter, but I'll not pry."
Jessie hesitated before answering. "You will make one hell of a detective." Fluffy grunted and moved aside as Jessie unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. "I'll see you tonight." Fluffy ambled through the door.
Dixie looped her hand around Betsy's barrel, and secured the shotgun under her arm as she stepped onto the patio. "Maybe I should leave this with you."
"I'll be fine. My gun is in my purse."
"If I'm reading things right, you need to keep it loaded and within easy reach at all times."
"I will and thanks again, Dixie." Jessie watched her cross the yard. In the months she had known Dixie, she had not told her much about herself and Laney or the close calls she had while infiltrating The Corporation, the harrowing flight to Colombia in the DC-3. And she had not told her that her life was now in danger because of something that happened on that flight. Nor had she told Hunter.
Until this incident, weeks had gone by without any thought of that danger. She scanned the surroundings and went inside. She locked the door and leaned against it. She gripped her shoulder where a bullet from Blake Hamilton's .357 had cut through her flesh to the bone. The scar was a reminder of the hell she had lived through and how close she had come to dying that day.
A shiver riveted up her spine as she remembered the wet sticky feel of his blood on her skin. If only it had ended then and there. But it hadn't. The past was catching up to her and no one could help her. Not even Hunter.
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