Excerpt: Trusting Jake
Book One: Elite Security Mystery Series
He’d found her. The quiet satisfaction went deep. He’d been looking for her for more than eighteen months. A couple of times he’d wondered if she were dead, but each time he’d picked up a new lead that led to another. And convinced him she was alive.
Now she sat right in front of him, four tables over, sharing lunch with three friends. He could scarcely believe the end was in sight. He dropped his gaze to his menu, knowing he was out of her line of sight, but wanting nothing to spook her. People could tell when someone was watching them.
Casually he glanced her way again. She’d have to pass by his table to leave. There was no other way out of the cafe. For the moment, he could relax. He’d have to turn his head when she was ready to leave, but he doubted she’d even glance his way.
She’d changed since the last time he’d seen her. She was laughing at something one of the other women was saying and the sparkling lights in her blue eyes brought forth an old memory–of the morning he’d located her in Baltimore a dozen years ago.
She looked as happy today as she had then. The years had changed her obviously. She’d put on some weight and cut her silky blonde hair. The jeans and flannel shirt were a marked dissimilarity from the designer gowns she’d worn years ago. Somehow the casual outfit suited her. Maybe it was because of the surroundings, the similar attire of the other people in the café. Last time he’d seen her she’d been enveloped by diamonds and satin.
If anyone had asked before today, he’d have thought she’d stick out like a sore thumb in this small Colorado mountain community. Seeing her with her friends, she fit in as if she’d lived here forever.
Jake sighed softly. He’d found her again–she wasn’t going to like it–again. More than eighteen months of investigation and now only twelve feet separated them–that and the diner’s customers.
Jake shifted his chair so he could watch her from the corner of his eye. He counted on her being so involved with the others at her table that she wouldn’t think to look around. He didn’t know if she’d recognize him if she spotted him, it had been eight years since she’d last seen him.
Eight years! Where did the time go? The older he got, the faster it went. He’d kept tabs on her during the first years after Baltimore. Idly he wondered if her grandfather knew that? Mentally he shrugged. It didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt for a mouse to look at a queen.
And the treatment they’d found for her must have worked. She looked healthy and normal from where he sat.
Wryly he almost smiled. Despite her fervent teenaged beliefs, no one had killed her twelve years ago. Or any time since.
“What’ll you have?” A young waitress slapped down a napkin and silverware. She pulled an order pad from her apron pocket and stood waiting, slowly chewing gum. Her fresh face a reminder of the first time he’d gone after Kassie. She’d been about this girl’s age back then.
“Apple pie and coffee.” He didn’t know how long Kassie Montgomery would take to finish lunch but he didn’t plan to leave a full meal behind to cause comment if she left soon.
For a minute Jake considered confronting her here in the restaurant. But he’d been patient all these months, he could wait until she was alone. It would be better to confront her at home, away from her friends. Away from any entanglements or interference. She wasn’t going to be happy to see him and he didn’t have the law on his side this time to enforce her return.
He was just going to take her back.
Waiting for the pie, he glanced out the window at the softly falling snow. It had begun as he reached the outskirts of town an hour ago. If he didn’t make his move soon, they might not make Denver before dark. If the prediction for the storm held, they’d be stuck in this hole-in-the-wall town for the night, if not longer. He frowned. Maybe he should approach her now, get this show on the road.
The waitress smiled when she returned with his slice of pie, turning the plate to make sure the tip pointed directly at his chest. She set down the coffee and a small pitcher of cream. “That it?” she asked.
“Looks fine,” he said. So much for apprehending Kassie Montgomery immediately. He’d eat the pie first, keep an eye on her. She wasn’t going far. He knew where she lived, where she worked, what name she was using. He’d catch her at home. Then after a few hours flying time he’d deliver her to her grandfather once again. Was it starting to become a habit?
Kassie Montgomery laughed at the punch line. Philip always came up with the most outrageous blond jokes to share, and teasingly held her eye every time. The two other women at their table, Mary and Eileen, also laughed. Philip’s jokes were always funny–though she accused him often of scrounging the world for blonde jokes on her account.
Suddenly Kassie’s amusement faded. The hair on the back of her neck prickled. She shivered uneasily for the first time in years. It felt as if someone watched her. Slowly she let her gaze drift around the coffee shop. None of the other diners seemed to be paying any attention to the group at her table. She glanced out the window. No one there.
“Oops, look at the snow. I’ve got to be going,” she said, fully aware of the storm for the first time. The weatherman had been predicting a blizzard for two days. “You know they don’t plow my road until last. If I don’t want to spend the entire holidays camped out with one of you, I’d better get home.”
“So you can be snowed in for Christmas?” Mary asked, pulling up her purse and rummaging in it for her wallet.
“Depending on how bad the storm is and if and when they clear the roads.” Kassie shrugged as she, too, found a handful of bills. “I could be. But I have plenty of supplies. And no family to visit. I’ll be fine. Besides–two weeks of freedom from the little monsters, be still my beating heart!”
“Thought you were going to come to our place for Christmas Day,” Eileen said, looking up when Kassie spoke.
“If I can make it, I’ll drop by in the afternoon. But if not, I’ll take a rain check. Maybe we’ll do the New Year in together. Either way, I’ll give you a call. Mostly I want to celebrate two weeks of freedom.”
Philip laughed. “You love them as much as we do, Kassie, don’t try to con us.”
Her expression stilled for a split second, caught at his term. She recovered swiftly, nodded and smiled. These were her friends–fellow teachers at Winter Creek High School. Philip meant nothing with his comment–he had no idea her whole life was a con. And she’d make damn sure none of them ever found out.
“True. Merry Christmas to each of you.” Rising, she hugged each friend as they prepared to depart. With another quick glance around the café, Kassie drew on her down jacket and walked with her friends to the door.
In only moments she turned her four-wheel drive SUV toward home, the heat blasting to keep the keening cold of the icy Colorado winds at bay. The snow fall increased as she drove slower and slower. Dense white flakes swirled and danced in the wind, piling up quickly on the windshield. She put the car in four-wheel drive, not that she needed it yet, but she had no desire to skid off the road into a snow bank at the beginning of Christmas vacation.
It was still early afternoon, but already growing dark with the storm. She flicked on her lights. School had let out at noon for the two-week vacation and she’d gone to a celebratory lunch with her closest friends. She’d be glad to get home, though.
Thunder would be glad to see her, too. The big German Shepherd was lonely while she was away all day. But she never considered changing that. She needed a dog, that dog, to feel safe. Not every teacher had a trained guard dog for a roommate. Not every teacher needed one.
Most of the time, she forgot his training. He was a much loved companion. And how he loved snow. Maybe they could play out in it for a while before dinner. She’d throw snowballs and laugh at his antics trying to find them in the drifts.
Kassie carefully turned off the highway onto the lane that led to her place. Few houses lined the narrow country road. Her house was the farthest from the highway. Two of the houses she passed were closed for winter. The Maguires, in the third house, the one closest to hers, had already left for the Christmas holidays with their daughter in Phoenix.
But the isolation and solitude suited her perfectly. She didn’t want to live surrounded by people, hemmed in at every direction–she’d had a surfeit of that under her grandfather’s rule. When deciding on a home, she’d chosen her house primarily because of its isolation. The cheap rent hadn’t hurt, either. She made ends meet on her salary, even had a little saved up. But no permanent ties for her. Life was too uncertain.
And the strongest selling point of her place had been its escape path.
Her lips tightened momentarily as her thoughts skidded to the old man. It had been months since he’d popped into mind. The dark memories swirled. He’d kept her virtually a prisoner for the last five years she’d lived under his thumb. The sorry bastard. And her dear aunt Beatrice had been just as bad.
Samuel Toggins, her grandfather’s secretary, had been the only sympathetic person in the crowd at the house–but had remained loyal to her grandfather in the end. Only Jason had been on her side.
Sometimes she wished she felt safe enough to contact him, to see what he was doing. To let him know she was okay.
But she dare not. She was on her own, living her life exactly as she wished. Grateful she’d never see the old man again, she banished him from her thoughts. She’d done her best to insure he’d never find her. And if by some fluke they did cross paths again, she had her escape planned.
Reaching home, she pulled under the car shed and killed the engine. The hush fell around her as the snow swirled lazily in fat, fluffy flakes, sheltered from the wind in this pocket beneath the tall evergreens.
She shivered a little when she stepped out. The icy air penetrated her jeans, danced around her neck with its cold fingers. Hurrying to the front door, she was thankful she’d stocked up on food and supplies last week. She’d planned at the time to avoid driving into town during her vacation. Now she didn’t need to worry about the weather, or road conditions, she had enough food to last the two weeks. School would resume long before she ran short on anything.
And there was plenty of wood, she thought with a smile as she took an armful of logs from her stash on the sheltered porch. The rest lay beneath tarps in the back, but she kept a huge stack replenished by the door, beneath the porch roof, to keep it dry and handy.
A deep bark greeted her as she fumbled with the key. Throwing open the door, she knew to stand to one side as the sleek black and tan shepherd streaked through and out onto the snow, pausing as his paws sank in the white power, a comical expression of surprise on his face.
“Hello, Thunder.” She grinned at him and watched as he scampered around the yard, barking and chasing snowflakes. He was only three, not much more than a pup–with the energy to prove it. But he was full grown, weighing in at 110 pounds, a big German Shepard. And the love of her life.
She closed the door and dumped the wood in the stack next to the stove, then started a fire. The main part of the small log house was heated primarily by the wood burning stove. Electric heaters stood in each of the bedrooms, but she didn’t use them unless she had to. Money was scarce, and electrical heating could get costly.
Thunder scratched at the door and she went to let him in, holding him by the door while he shook off the snow, preventing him from dripping on her rugs.
She kept a huge old bath towel near the door for such situations. He was almost dry when she heard the car. Pausing, she tossed the towel down and moved to the window, peering out into the snow storm, trying to see who was approaching. Her friends didn’t visit unless they called first. None of them would be coming out on a day like today–the snow fall was predicted in the inches. Was it someone who had lost his way?
Unlikely this far off the main road.
She drew in her breath in startled disbelief as she recognized the driver. Not a face she would ever forget. Jake Lancaster.
Memories crowded as fear rose and threatened to choke her. Then lifesaving anger flared. Instantly every memory of that humiliating day in Baltimore resurfaced. That man was the sole reason she’d been through five years of hell!
She remembered his implacability when she tried to get away, when he’d discovered her after her aborted attempt to escape the domination of the old man. Was he here on his behalf?
She didn’t believe in coincidence. Jake Lancaster was nothing but trouble with a capital T.
How had he found her?
Jake climbed out of the car, muttering an expletive as the cold zapped straight through his clothes. Damn, he was hardly dressed for a blizzard. Slowly he walked toward the house, scanning the grounds, listening for any sounds. Her car was beneath a carport. She’d come straight home. Snow crunched beneath his feet. The hush sounded unnatural.
He stopped near the porch, eying the log structure before him. It looked like a dozen other places he’d seen in this part of the country. Rugged, strong, built to last several lifetimes. Plain and functional. A far cry from an antebellum mansion on the Savannah Road outside Atlanta. Too small for servants. How did Sutherland’s princess granddaughter manage?
“Not that it matters,” he muttered, closing the distance. Time enough to satisfy his curiosity once he got inside. Or she could tell him all about life on the run while they flew back to Atlanta. But first he needed to get out of the blasted cold!
Before he took another step, however, the door opened and she stepped out, a double barrel shotgun leveled at his chest. The pumping action echoed in the muffled snowfall. Jake froze, his gaze locking with hers, recognizing instantly the implacable determination that shone from her blue eyes.
Damn! Little Kassie had grown up.
Seeing him approach her house, Kassie reached for the shotgun. She’d practiced the drill endless times when she’d first arrived. Wanting to be prepared for discovery when it came, as the months passed she’d begun to think she would never be found. Seeing Jake again, however, changed everything. For an instant she let the old anger wash through her, dampening down the fear. How dare he try to invade her life again! Was she never to be left alone?
This time he’d discover she was not a shy teenager unable to resist being led back to virtual prison. This time she was prepared. More prepared than Jake Lancaster expected. And more determined than she’d been at seventeen.
Thunder growled deep in his throat, his hair raised on his back. She opened the door, spoke a word to the dog, and stood in the frame, shotgun pointed directly at Jake Lancaster’s chest. Coolly she pumped the action. Used to the weight, she never let the barrel waver.
It had been a dozen years since he’d found her in Baltimore, at least seven or eight since she’d last seen him. He looked the same. Big, powerful, and mean. He wore jeans, flat soled black biker boots and a denim jacket. His dark hair was a little longer, surely no longer regulation for a cop, unless he worked undercover. It was quickly being coated with snow. His eyes met hers, held. Still a dark, smoky blue. Deep and cautious, they gave nothing away.
He wasn’t dressed warmly enough for the storm that swirled around him. Let him freeze, she thought with some satisfaction, the gun steady. He stopped in his tracks, raising his hands away from his side. His eyes stared straight into hers.
“Hello Kassie,” he said easily, his eyes watchful, alert. He’d not expected the shotgun,that much was evident. Nor the dog growling at her side. A quick glance at the teeth on the animal, then his hard gaze met hers again. He didn’t move.
“Get the hell off my property, Lancaster. Or I’ll call the cops.” Again she remembered Baltimore. The heady taste of freedom had been a rush–one in her innocence she had thought to keep forever. But he’d made sure that hadn’t happened. He’d taken the old bastard’s money and dragged her back to hell. She would never forget.
But if he was looking for a repeat, he’d be in for a quite a surprise.
“I’ve come a long way to see you,” he said. Snow began to settle on his shoulders, on his head turning his dark hair white. He was still as big as she remembered. His rough-hewn face hadn’t aged. Yet he had to be in his middle thirties, maybe older. She knew he was hard, implacable–and capable of selling out to the man with the most money. She dare not underestimate the man.
“I don’t want to see you. I sure don’t want to talk to you. Did the old man send you?”
“If you mean your grandfather, yes. He wants to see you. He’s been worried about you.” Plus there were family members pushing to have her declared dead. He’d just proved that impossible.
Jake essayed his chances of getting the gun. How good a shot was she? Not that it mattered. A shotgun had a wide spread. At this distance she couldn’t miss. Did she have the nerve to pull the trigger?
It was a moot point. The dog convinced him any chances of rushing her stood between zip and zero.
“Liar,” she said, without heat. “He only wants to control me, he could care less beyond that. I’m not seventeen any more Lancaster. And any phony papers saying I’m crazy would be torn up and tossed away. I have too many people who’ve known me for too long to let that lie get any mileage. Get off my property!”
Jake frowned, glancing at the shotgun. “I’ve been looking for you for more than eighteen months. Can we at least talk?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. Get in your car, turn it around and get. And don’t tell him where I am,” she said her mind already racing ahead–thoughts tumbling over themselves as she tried to remember all she had to do before leaving.
It was a foregone fact she’d have to leave. There was no way Lancaster was going to take her grandfather’s money and not report back to him. She’d had eight years of freedom, she would never go back.
But, damn, she had been happy here. She’d made friends, made a contribution to the school. She didn’t want to start over somewhere else. And especially not with Jake Lancaster hot on her tail.
But she’d do it. She’d do anything to keep out of the old man’s clutches.
And next time she’d hide her tracks even better–so he’d never find her!