Heather James closed the cash drawer and walked into the back room of the bakery. "I'm done with the receipts. Anything else before I head out?"
"Why don't I give you a ride home? It's pretty late." Sally rinsed a large mixing bowl and upended it on the counter to drain.
"It's only four thirty. That's not late." She grinned and grabbed her coat from the hook. Her boss was only three months pregnant but had already started thinking like a mom.
"The roads are probably slippery—"
"Which is exactly why I don't want you driving up that hill to my place. The bus drops me close enough, and the snow has barely started." She wound a scarf around her neck and headed for the back door. "Everything's locked up out front, and the lights are off. Will you be here in the morning?"
"I'm not sure, depends on how my tummy feels. Certainly not when you get here at five, but I'll open for customers."
"Good night then."
"Are you sure—?"
Heather waved and closed the door behind her, catching her breath at the blast of frigid air whipping through the alley. She shoved her hands in her pockets and hurried to the bus stop. Riding in a nice warm car would certainly be preferable to huddling in the bus shelter.
Working the extra shift meant it was dark as she got off the bus. The walk up the long drive was normally enjoyable and calming. But tonight she felt jumpy.
In fact, she’d been jumpy all week. It wasn’t just living alone in a strange city. She’d done that plenty of times. And after being here for close to two months, she’d gotten to know her neighborhood and felt comfortable.
Tonight, something was off.
The back of her neck prickled, as if someone were staring at her, watching her every move. She moved faster, but glanced back several times, only to see the empty driveway and one set of footprints in the fresh snow. Hers. She quickened her pace. Just because she didn’t see anyone didn’t mean no one was out there.
She broke into a run, convinced a pair of clawed hands was about to grab her. Turning onto the walkway leading to the gatehouse of the estate, her heel found a hidden patch of ice, and she went down. She sucked in her breath as pain lanced through her hip and her back teeth knocked together.
“Blast it to hell and back.”
Frantic to reach safety, she scrambled to her feet and raced to the door. She fumbled with her key, desperate to escape the unseen menace.
Glancing over her shoulder for a last look, she pushed the door open, then slammed it and turned the lock. Her heart thudded in her chest as she leaned against the door, breathing in hard, sharp gasps. She pushed away, then hurried through the small house, turned on every light, checked that every window and door was locked, and pulled the blinds.
She tried to convince herself it was her overactive imagination. Laughing at her foolishness, she remembered acting the same way as a young girl. Her bedroom in the house in New York had been at the end of a long hallway. Every night she’d raced to her bed, feeling the hounds of hell nipping at her heels.
This latest dash to safety had no doubt been fueled by too much work and too little sleep. Working both shifts at the bakery left her with little energy, and even though she was happy to help out while the regular clerk recovered from the flu, she'd be glad to get back to her normal schedule.
And seriously, who would want to follow her? There'd be no sense mugging her since she had a grand total of seven dollars in her wallet. And her small house held no jewels or other treasures. She hung her coat on the rack and headed to the kitchen.
Something touched her leg, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked down as Samson brushed against her leg again, mewing his high-pitched cry.
"Cripes on crutches, you've got to stop doing that, Samson.” She took a deep breath, willing her heart rate to slow. “Come on, kitty-cat, let's get supper."
Though not particularly hungry, she heated a frozen dinner and forced herself to eat the marginally balanced meal. One of the bonuses of working in the bakery was an unlimited supply of sweets. Which was also the major drawback. Since she'd started working at Wicked Good Treats two months earlier, her pants had become a bit snug. It was silly to expect anyone to resist those freshly baked goodies. She limited herself to two items a day. More than reasonable, in her opinion.
After checking the locks one more time, she turned off the lights and trudged up the stairs, knowing her alarm clock would ring at four in the morning whether she was ready or not. And as much as she grumbled when her feet hit the cold floor, she really did enjoy that time alone in the bakery, getting the breads and rolls ready for the day, surrounded by the moist heat and heady, yeasty smells.
She left the light off in her room and crossed to the window. There were a few lights on in the big house up the hill, and she stood watching, hoping for a glimpse of the guy who'd moved in the week before. So far, she’d seen him only from a distance. Tall, dark, and handsome barely scratched the surface.
Could it have been Tony she sensed outside? Walking his dog? No, there was no way the dog wouldn’t have made its presence known, all eighty pounds of hairy mutt, if she were to guess.
Still fueled on adrenaline from her mad dash to the house, she had no desire yet to sleep. She retreated to the kitchen and pondered her baking supplies. Now was as good a time as any to be neighborly to her new neighbor, since they both happened to be at home.
Strange that her lifelong love of baking was being used to keep body and soul together. She’d never considered baking as a profession she would enjoy.
Winter always made her crave gingerbread, so she dug through her folder of recipes, some cut from magazines, some scribbled on index cards. Chewy ginger cookies with candied ginger would hit the spot. Twenty minutes later she had the first pan in the oven. She quickly brushed her hair and teeth, and stood staring at the oven timer.
“Samson, your mommy has the patience of a flea.” Assuming that fleas hopped about due to lack of patience, and not some other reason.
Finally the timer beeped, and she transferred a dozen cookies onto a plate. They’d cool on the walk up the hill.
Halfway there, she paused. What if he wasn’t alone? She hadn’t seen anyone else around, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t entertaining a lady friend. Or a man friend. No, there was no way she’d let him be gay.
In for a penny, in for a pound. She continued the trek and knocked on the front door. She already knew the doorbell was broken. Another thing to fix in the dilapidated house.
A few seconds later the door swung open, and there he stood, even cuter up close. Black hair, fashionably short; piercing brown eyes; and a few days’ growth of beard. In other words, yum.
“Uh—hi—I thought I should introduce myself and”—she held out her plate—“welcome you.”
He took the plate with his free hand, his other wrapped securely around the dog’s collar. “Come in, please.” He closed the door and released the dog. “Delilah, behave.” The dog immediately sat, though her tail wagged so quickly, her butt moved along the floor.
“What did you call her?”
“Delilah, like in Samson and Delilah. You know, the song, and the Bible. Why?”
“It’s just funny—my cat is named Samson.” If she believed in fate, or powers of the universe, she’d see this as a sign. Of something.
He grinned and held out his hand. “Tony Simons. And that is quite a coincidence.”
“Heather James.” She took his hand, noting appreciatively that it was warm, dry, and strong. But not bone-crushing. This guy had nothing to prove.
She smiled. “Evidently. Everything okay so far?”
“Yeah, fine. Come into the—the parlor, I guess.”
“Said the spider to the fly.” She slipped off her jacket and hung it on the newel post before following him into one of the front rooms. A small fire burned in the fireplace, and he’d clearly been working on his laptop, given the jumbled state of the coffee table. Delilah settled into her bed in the corner and subsided with a sigh.
“There were plenty of spiders in the chimney, but they’ve been taken care of, one way or another.”
“Sorry the place wasn’t more—”
“Hey, no problem. Would you like a drink?”
“I can’t stay. I just wanted to say hi and bring over those cookies.”
“They look amazing.”
So do you, big guy. She glanced around the room, looking for evidence of a female, but nothing jumped out at her. No bra dangling from the doorknob, anyway.
“You’re a photographer? The rental agency guy wasn’t clear.”
“Yes, freelance. Here are some of my recent shots.” He woke up his computer, and the screen was filled with small pictures that appeared to be all black and white. “These are for a travel magazine doing a feature on New England winter vacations.”
Tony pressed a few keys, starting a slide show of the pictures in full size. She leaned close, drawn in by the stark beauty, the contrast of light and dark, an icicle hanging from a tree limb, and a column of smoke from a chimney.
“Oh, I love this one.” The picture was of the harbor and a dock, with mist rising from the water. She could almost feel the chilled moisture on her face.
“I took that a few days ago.” He pressed another key to stop the slide show on that picture.
Dang, he was good. Well, he’d have to be to earn a living. He probably got to travel all over the world, much like she’d done. Except she hadn’t had a profession requiring the travel. More like lack of profession in her case.
She smothered a yawn. “Sorry, it’s way past my bedtime.”
She didn’t miss the way his gaze traveled over her body at the mention of bed. She was fairly sure there’d been a spark of interest. She’d checked him out pretty thoroughly, too. She was definitely interested. He had the build she most admired, judging by how his jeans and sweater fit. Toned muscles, and six feet tall. Perfection.
“Yeah, I’ve noticed you keep early hours.” He crossed his arms over his chest, pulling her gaze to his biceps and shoulders. No way he got those muscles just taking photos.
“Comes with the job—I work at a bakery in town.”
He motioned with his head to the plate of cookies sitting on the mantel, safe from Delilah. “Hence the cookies.”
“Actually, I baked those at my place. Just now. They might still be warm.”
His brows rose, and he grabbed a cookie, consuming half with one bite. “Mm, that is good.”
“Thanks. I’m always trying new recipes, so you may get more.” She bit back another yawn. Dang, her work hours were messing with her chance of a social life. “I’ll let you get back to your work.”
She retrieved her jacket and went to the door, sensing Tony right behind her. Not the spooky, unseen menace from earlier. More a warmth, and a desire to lean into him. He reached past her to open the door, brushing her arm. She sucked in a breath. He smelled of wool, ginger, and warm skin. She forced herself to not turn her head. Not look at him. He was too close. Heaven only knew what her body would do; it seemed out of her control. She called a quick good-bye and jogged down the steps. Thank goodness the frigid air cooled her body. She glanced over her shoulder. He stood framed in the doorway, hands in pockets, a smile on his lips.
Oh yeah, she’d be doing more baking.
Once in the safety of her little house, she tidied the kitchen, storing the remaining cookie dough in the fridge. She’d bake the rest of the cookies at the bakery and drop them off at the adult day care around the corner.
Now that there was a big, strong guy living a couple hundred feet away, all thoughts of being followed could be forgotten. It was just the dark, a strange noise, and being tired. She could concentrate on the bakery and getting to know her handsome neighbor.
She pulled the blind and got ready for bed. Safely tucked under her thick comforter, she picked up her dad's journal and leafed through it. Again. She'd read it so many times she could recite passages from memory. Only the first half of the small leather-bound volume had been used. The final page seemed to end in midthought.
…ghosts from the past are exacting revenge…
Finding the rest of the journals might help solve the mystery of his life. And his death.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would sort through his boxes. Two months was long enough for the spirits to settle.
M. Marcel Jeffers leaned back in the comfort of the upholstered chair and surveyed the hotel lobby. He would miss this understated elegance. One of the perks of being good at his job was being able to afford the best, and the Portland Harbor Hotel was certainly that. He had slept better than he had in weeks, his morning coffee had been the perfect temperature, and if he had so desired, his morning erection would have been taken care of with as much care and attention to detail. Unfortunately he wasn't here to enjoy himself. At least not yet. Perhaps after his business was concluded.
If he didn’t accomplish what he’d traveled across the ocean to do, he wouldn’t be able to afford any of the luxuries he’d grown accustomed to.
Live as though you’ll succeed, and you will.
That had been his personal motto since he’d started in the business over thirty years earlier. And for the most part it had worked. It wasn’t every thief who could claim they’d spent no time behind bars.
That alone was reason enough to celebrate.
Yes, he’d find time for a reward before he returned to his château. He'd have one of his assistants find a suitable companion for his last evening in town. One smart enough to keep her mouth shut as soon as she was done putting her mouth to good use. He shifted in his chair, lowering his newspaper to cover the bulge forming in his trousers. It was good to know that some parts of his body still functioned.
"Excuse me, sir. Maxim has returned with the car." Nicholas, the more muscular of his two assistants, bowed slightly. It had taken some intensive training, but Jeffers was satisfied with the help for which he paid handsomely.
"Thank you, Nicholas. I’ve decided to pay the young lady a visit myself."
"Very good, sir."
It certainly helped to have found both men while they were in their teens and susceptible to flattery and bribery. Now they owed him their lives and their freedom, and he made sure to remind them of the fact regularly. He didn't quite understand their personal lifestyle choices. Getting body parts pierced had never appealed to him, and the new obsession with tattoos was nothing but strange. The body art did add to their mien of danger, which had proven helpful on more than one occasion.
Enjoying each other's bodies was something else he found unfathomable. Although he did derive enjoyment and sexual release by watching their animalistic coupling on the video monitor he'd had installed at the château. Sometimes they had an extra person join in their fun, usually male, but sometimes female. His own private pornography studio.
Jeffers sauntered out to the waiting Rolls-Royce as best he could, hampered as he was by the need to use a walking stick. His treacherous body was letting him down. And yet he still paused to enjoy the feeling of importance created by one of the most luxurious automobiles ever made. Granted, it was only a rental, but he’d grown accustomed to luxury at home in France and saw no reason to lower his standards while traveling. He only hoped this trip would come to an end before he froze. He’d never been so cold. There would soon be flowers in the garden at his château, but he doubted anything ever bloomed in this frigid climate.
Maxim, his driver, held the car door for him, but his eyes were on Nicholas. Jeffers knew he had kept them apart long enough. They'd committed a small infraction and been punished by having to sleep in separate rooms. Tonight he would allow them to be together, and he'd stay to watch. A little titillation as a prelude to his own reward.
“Drive carefully in this dreadful snow, Maxim. Nicholas, you sit back here with me.”
The drive across town was accomplished quickly, and they were soon in an area where larger homes were spread out on generous acreage.
Maxim turned the wheel too quickly at an intersection, and Jeffers grabbed for the door handle. “Slow down, you fool.”
Nicholas’s arm shot out and held him steady. Another reason to employ strapping young men. He’d have need of their physical assistance more and more as the months passed and his own strength dwindled.
They pulled into a long, curving driveway. A small brick house sat behind stone pillars where a gate had once hung. Farther along, a large house that would have been impressive in its day crowned a small hill. But many years of neglect had taken its toll, and the once grand Queen Anne mansion resembled a tawdry boardinghouse, complete with strips of wood covering a second-floor window.
“Are you sure this is the place?” Jeffers frowned at the overgrown hedge and the rusted fence.
“Oui, monsieur. I followed her here exactly.”
“Stop. Who is that man?”
Maxim stepped on the brakes, put the car in reverse, and backed up. “A worker, perhaps?
“You didn’t see him earlier?” Jeffers glowered at Maxim, the imbecile.
“Non.” Maxim shook his head.
Jeffers glanced at Nicholas, who’d searched the main house the day before. “Well?”
“The house is almost empty. That car was not here.”
Jeffers narrowed his eyes at the large BMW. He doubted the young mademoiselle could afford such luxury. He watched the man, heard him whistle for a large, shaggy dog, and they both entered the house.
“You say the girl went in that smaller house?
“Yes, there she is now.” Maxim pointed toward the little house close to the driveway.
A woman stood at one of the upstairs windows. A young woman with hair the same color as that devil Robert James. Her dear departed papa.
“Merde! We need to leave before we are seen.”
Jeffers glanced between the large, crumbling mansion and the small, neat house, and wondered. Yes, that must be it. She’d moved into the smaller house and rented or sold the other place. But why? And why did the property look unkempt?
Clearly, further investigation was called for.
Stay away from the main house. I doubt she would have left anything of value behind for a stranger to steal. You will return tonight, Nicholas. While she sleeps. I need that painting.” He rubbed his hands together. “I am chilled. Let us return to the hotel, and we can all get warmed up.” He winked, and the flushed faces on the other two men told him they understood exactly what he was saying. And they were more than willing to comply.