Teasers

It has been a long time just getting this thing to a good start. So, here’s the first three chapters, just to get an idea of where it’s headed. Knowing, of course, after three drafts it will be different.

ONE

It was a startling blur of motion and sound. Barb and I had paused to open the library door when I noticed a man standing about five feet from me on the sidewalk outside of the Marston Library, his face red with fury, angry curses spewing my direction, a fist raised as he suddenly moved toward me. The next moment I was being pulled through the library door, still hearing the excited noises coming from the sidewalk I had just left.  I turned to see the angry man now on his knees, his hand in the grip of a stone-faced man who was never far from me. Phil Conrad had materialized, and somehow put the angry man on his knees, his hand no longer fisted, but held in Phil’s grip, stiff and unmovable. Phil appeared to be casually telling the sudden crowd to call the police, pulling his ID from his jacket pocket with his free hand.

I resisted Barb’s tug on my arm and watched through the glass door.

“Come on, Margaret. Let Phil deal with it.” She said firmly.

I looked at her, swallowed, and then nodded. She pulled me further into the library, glanced around, and then led me to a study room and pushed me gently down in a seat at the old table. “The police won’t be long,” she said softly, taking the seat between me and the doorway, surveyed the empty room, nodded, and pulled out her phone and sent a quick text.

“Sam?” I nodded toward her phone. Sam Parker. Her boss, the security manager of the firm that provided me security twenty-four-seven.

“Yes. Breathe, Margaret.” She gave me a smile and I took a deep breath. “Try to relax. Phil will talk to the responding officer and let him know what he saw. Then he and the officer will come in here after the officer is done talking with witnesses, and the officer will take your statement. I will give it another two or three minutes and your phone will ring. Sam making sure you’re okay.”

I looked down at my clasped hands. The moment of panic had been short lived. I trusted this woman and her partner with my life. Phil Conrad and Barb Peterson were more than security, they were friends. We sat quietly at the table, Barb giving me time to relax, her gaze occasionally going back to the doorway.  I took another deep breath and reached for the now ringing cell phone in my jacket pocket. Not quite three minutes.

“Okay?” Sam asked.

“I’m good.” I assured him.

“What else did you plan for the day?”

I smiled. Most of the time he knew my schedule better than I did. He confirmed all our schedules. But this was not a workday for me, it was a free day with a visit to the library, and the new coffee shop. “An hour here looking at old newspapers, a stop to buy your people the best coffee they’ll ever have, and then home.”

“Okay,” I heard the smile in his voice. “I called Mitch.” Mitchel Barker was Sam’s boss and close friend. Mitchel, the man who had won my heart.

I sighed, wishing Sam hadn’t called Mitchel. But that was the normal procedure, report all incidents immediately, whether it happened to me or any of the other clients. Usually, a text would do until a full report could be made. But not with me. Never with me. “You told him I was okay, right?”

“Yes. He needed to hear it from me, and he needs to hear it from you. You know how he is when he is so far away when things happen.”

“Yeah, it didn’t take long to figure that out.” I took in a deep breath. “I’ll bring back a big bag of coffee for all your people.”

“Call Mitch. He’s free for another five minutes.”

“Okay, thanks Sam.”

I looked at Barb, then at my phone. She laughed softly. “Go on, call Mitch.” She got to her feet and walked over to the doorway to give me privacy.

Mitchel answered halfway through the first ring. “Retti! You’re really okay?”

Retti, his version of a diminutive of Margaret, the nickname he’d declared was perfect for me when we were twelve. Proudly given to his best friend who’d lived next door to him in those wonderful years before he moved away at age fifteen. The nickname had stuck, even after seventeen years, when he’d moved back to Marston.

I leaned back against the hard wooden chair. “I’m fine. Barb got me inside the library before I could even be afraid. Before I could figure out what the guy’s problem was.”

“You’re going home now?”

“No, I’m going to finish what I planned to do as soon as the police talk to me.”

“Retti.” Mitchel Barker let out a long breath.

“Mitchel, I’m fine. I’m going to spend an hour in the library, get Barb and Phil some good coffee, buy a bag of that same good coffee to take back to your office, and then I’m going home.”

“I love you.” He said gently.

I smiled. My big, gun carrying art expert and antique dealer, who also ran the business end of a successful security firm, hated being so far away when there was any kind of incident where my safety was concerned. “You’d better,” I told him softly. “Because in three weeks you’re going to have to stand before God and everyone else at the church and prove it.”

He laughed softly. “As long as I’ve proven it to you.”

“Go back to work, Mitchel. I’m fine.” I sighed. “And yes, I love you, too.”

“Took you long enough to get there,” he grumbled. “We should be done tonight. I’ve got a flight booked for tomorrow, but there will be some layovers, so we’ll probably have to stay a night at a hotel and will be home day after tomorrow.”

“Good. Go to work.”

He chuckled. “Alright, I’ll call you later tonight.”

“Goodbye.”

He was still chuckling when I hung up. I put the phone on the table and motioned for Barb to come sit back down. “Do I have time to go grab the book of old papers?”

She took her phone out and sent a quick text. “Phil says they’ll be here in about five minutes.”

I nodded. “Okay, let me go get them and bring them back here.”

I was just walking back into the study room carrying two large bound books of the local newspapers from thirty years ago when Phil and a uniform police officer entered the library. Barb moved to the doorway, raised a hand, and in moments the two men joined us in the study room.

The officer was not quite as tall as Phil. He was dressed in the black uniform of the local police department, a fit, extremely focused man of about forty. It did not take long for me to tell my side of the event or for Barb to offer her observance, and when the officer had added our information to the page he’d started, he had us both sign it, told us if anything else was needed, someone would contact us. He left swiftly, and I heard him speak into the communication equipment on his shoulder as he left the library.

“They’ve already taken the guy in, hospital first,” Phil told us. “They think he’s had a mental health episode. It’s not his first public incident like this. They’ll get him checked out.”

I looked at Phil closely. I didn’t want to offend him, but I had to ask. “You’re okay, right?”

He grinned at me. “I’ve still got a few moves left from all those years in the army.” He nodded. “I’m okay. Once I got him down, he didn’t try anything else.”

“You were showing off,” Barb said, pulling one of the books toward her. “We’re looking for pictures at the old fairgrounds, right?”

“You’re just jealous,” Phil told Barb with a smirk before he added, “Looks like you’ve got it covered here. I’m going back outside.”

Barb nodded, glanced at him and smiled. “It was a cool move. You’ll have to show me how to do that.”

“You got it.” Phil nodded and headed back outside.

I watched him for a few seconds and then looked at Barb. They were a good team. Barb’s brow went up and I nodded. “Yes, I want to see whatever shots were printed from the fairgrounds. It is little more than a park now, but I’m curious to see how much the land itself has changed so I have a better idea of what I want to do with the photos that the McKinleys want taken out there.”

She moved a little so she could still see the doorway clearly. “Why don’t you move to the far end of the table?”

I had quit asking why they requested things of me. With a smile I just nodded and moved to the end of the table and opened the second book and started looking for old photos.

I was home within two hours.  Phil stood waiting for me to get out of my car, and I told him that I was locking up and staying in for the rest of the day. He’d nodded, gave me a long look, decided I really was okay and then took the coffee I handed him for the whole crew.  With a smile he went into Mitch’s Craftsman style house next door to my bungalow to give Sam his quick report while Barb watched my property on camera monitors from the back of Mitch’s garage. Phil would move his vehicle out to the street as soon as he was done with his report and stay there until the evening security crew arrived.

I went in through my office door from the driveway, paused as I keyed in the security code to lock the door and looked around. The renovation I’d had done with money I’d inherited after my mother’s death still sometimes caught me by surprise. The former back porch now had a raised platform added at the end of the room. An arm that held screens and could be moved wherever I wanted them was mounted on the outer wall. Additional lights had been installed and a cushioned bench along the wall opposite the desk had been built. The whole office had a fresh coat of paint, and tile had been put down on the old wooden floor.  I had kept the equipment I had for no reason other than I liked it. Later, if business picked up, I would add some more. My new desk was a little larger, and Lacey Miller, the IT genius that worked for Mitchel, had found me a new computer that was reasonably priced and installed top of the line programs.  Besides my new office chair, there were new chairs for visitors to use. I’d kept the same filing cabinet and the credenza where my coffee pot sat.

 I smiled, remembering the near argument Mitchel and I had gotten into about him getting me a commercial coffee pot like the one he had. I had reminded him that rarely was there more than two people at a time coming to see me, so unlike him, I didn’t need a coffee maker designed to provide for crowds. He’d also argued that since I’d had my kitchen updated some, I needed a coffee pot in there instead of having to come back to the office to get coffee. I’d reminded him that he was the one that didn’t like to do that, I’d been fine with taking the five extra steps to get coffee for a long time. But when I’d invited friends over when the basic remodeling was done, he’d brought in a single serve machine and set it up for me on the kitchen counter. I’d shaken my head at his smirking grin and sweetly thanked him. He had stepped over, kissed my cheek, and then arranged a container of assorted coffee pods on a turntable next to the coffee maker.

 I stepped from the office into the kitchen and put my purse down on the table. When it had come time to have work done on the house, I’d discovered I didn’t want it to change much at all. Most of the work had been minor repairs, fresh paint, new carpet in the bedrooms. The kitchen cabinets had been refinished and new butcher block counter tops put down. The workers had made sure I’d really wanted such a dated style, and I had assured them it was exactly what I wanted. I had the old linoleum floor removed, and the hardwood floor underneath it sanded and stained. The old table and chairs had been cleaned up, and I had decided against a new stove and refrigerator, and called it done.

I went to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water and sank down at the table. I didn’t feel like cooking, so I’d eat some cereal in an hour or so. I pulled the notebook from my bag and reviewed the notes I’d made on the photos Barb and I had found. Most of them had been crowd shots, with some of the animal exhibits. There had been two distance shots that took in the whole area, and I’d been able to see that the small mound on the south part of the park had been where the stage had been set up. The trees bordering the east end of the park had not been as abundant, but those were the only things still recognizable from the photos.

I’d met with Matt and Lois McKinley three times already at the park and next week would begin taking some general shots. The retired couple had been working for over a year writing a history of Marston, currently preparing for a chapter focusing on the old fair grounds. I’d done photos for them during the winter as they had researched a winter festival that Marston had held in the 1950s and had also taken building photos in the early Spring of the three schools in town for a section on education. Once the park photos were done, they were talking about needing pictures in the fall of the local baseball tournaments for a section on sports in Marston over the years.

I was getting different types of photography business since I had expanded beyond simple shots for locals and weddings at the wedding center. I still did some of them, but had a college kid, who was a great photographer, willing to fill in where needed. Mark Sawyers reminded me of myself in college and my dreams of being a photographer, maybe one day working for a major magazine. That was before my father and brother had died in an accident and my mother, and both of our worlds, had been torn apart. I’d had to leave college and start working at the grocery store while trying to pick up the kind of work I gave Mark to do.  My mother had fallen first into depression, and then into drug dependency until my grandfather had gotten her help and she had gotten clean. But damage to her brain as a result of the abuse had created a nightmare for me as I became the person she could safely hate, blame for everything wrong in her life, and bully, parading her stupid daughter before her wealthy friends. Friends she had because her father had set her up to live very comfortably as long as she stayed off of drugs.

Those years of drug dependency had also led to a series of attempts from a former associate of hers, to get money, from me, from Mitchel, and finally culminating with an attack at her condo which had led to her collapse and ultimate death.

After four months of meeting with a therapist after my mother died, with the support of Mitchel and his parents and my friends from church, my world had finally begun to form into one that felt almost normal. I’d stopped meeting with the therapist, convinced my doctor to wean me off the anti-anxiety medication, and met weekly with the pastor, sometimes with his wife. The joy of finding my relationship with God restored had been the biggest part of bringing me into a place where I could trust my emotions and relax enough to enjoy the relationship I had with Mitchel and finally accept that I loved him. Could accept that he genuinely loved me and did not pity me.

TWO

The call from Mitchel came at nine fifteen. “Hey,” he said wearily. “No issues?”

I knew what he meant. Panic attacks and anxiety induced trembles could still sneak up on me when I was tired, and my stress load heavy.

“I’m fine,” I told him, reaching for the remote to turn off the early news. I curled my feet under me on the sofa. “You’re tired.”

“I am. Very.” He sighed. “Pop is on the balcony talking with Mom. We are so glad this is over.” He stifled a yawn. “The attorneys were able to provide proof that the break in at the county offices was not one of our people, but as we thought, the guy who didn’t pass our background checks and swore payback. He made the mistake of bragging about what he’d done on social media sites.” I heard what sounded like him settling in a chair. “Pop’s assistant found us an earlier flight, this time without so many lay overs, so we might be back tomorrow late afternoon.” He yawned and sighed. “He got Mom a flight, too, but she’ll be there before we get there. That way Pop and I can get everyone up to date on things tomorrow night, and Mom can bug you about wedding plans. Sam will pick her up at the airport, sometime in the early afternoon.  Marshal is returning with us and one of the South Carolina teams will travel with Mom, check in with Sam and stick around for extra security since the folks will be staying until after the wedding.  I can’t remember the details and I’m too tired right now to look at the email he sent us.”

Usually, Sam traveled with Mitchel and when he didn’t it was obvious how much Mitchel depended on his friend and security director. But Mitchel had wanted Sam at home since he was going to be gone for at least two weeks. Mitchel’s concern for my safety seemed over the top, but I had learned to accept it as part of who he was and not that he thought I was incapable in any way. I had great security teams, picked by Sam himself, but Sam was the best in Mitchel’s eyes, and Mitchel wanted him nearby in case the worst could happen.

 “You know I love your mom and welcome all her help. Mitchel, I’m fine. A detective came by and talked with me earlier about the man who tried to attack me. Apparently, this is not the first time he’s done something like this. He gets off his medication and starts to believe people are out to get him. Comes up with some pretty elaborate theories.”

“What’s going to happen with him?”

“He’s still in the hospital being checked out. Then will probably be admitted for a short time for treatment. His grandfather wanted to come talk to me, but the detective suggested I not do that. The grandfather is afraid I’m going to make big trouble for his grandson.”

“His grandson has already made trouble for himself,” Mitchel yawned again. “You gave a statement, you might have to go to court, but if there were witnesses it doesn’t lie solely on you. And, since he didn’t touch you that might make a difference.”

“Will Phil be in trouble?”

“I’m sure they’ve talked with him as well. As dedicated security for you, he had a right to act. And, knowing Phil’s ability to immediately read a situation, I’m sure he didn’t hurt the guy.”

“It was amazing. In seconds he did something with the guy’s hand or arm or something and the guy was down on his knees and frozen.”

“I’ve seen Sam use that move. Effective and other than a sore wrist, the guy wasn’t injured.”

“How’s your dad holding up?” I asked gently. This was the first time Rob Carter, Mitchel’s stepfather, had been away from home since he’d had surgery on his shoulder as a result of a vehicle accident three months earlier. The security firm Rob ran in South Carolina, as well as the extension of the business Mitchel and Sam ran in Missouri, had been faced with a major investigation in Connecticut, accusing criminal activity against county officials by one of their employees.

“He’s tired.” Mitch said. “Not as grumpy as I would be.”

I had to snicker. “I’m sure.”

“Hey.”

“You said it.” I teased. “Taking a few days off when you get back?”

“Why? Have you missed me?”

“So very conceited.”

“I knew it, it’s killing you that I’ve been gone for almost two weeks.”

“Okay, you need to get some sleep. Goodnight Mitchel.”

He chuckled. “Night, babe.” He paused and then added, “If you have nightmares, you’ll call me, right?”

I sighed. Sometimes his insight was still hard to adjust to.

“I’d rather you call me to talk and get some peace. More important to me than my getting a full night’s sleep.”

“I don’t deserve you,” I whispered.

“I knew it, this has wound you up more than you’ll admit.”

“A little. Not bad, just reminded me too much of last year.” I sighed. “I love you, Mitchel. I’m really glad you’ll be home sooner.”

“You’ll call me.”

“If I need to. I’ll pray we can both sleep for the full night.”

“Me too. Hey, here comes Pop. He wants to talk to you.”

“Hey kiddo, you just can’t get away from the exciting stuff, can you?”

I smiled. Rob had quickly become to me like the father I’d lost so long ago, accepting me as family even if Mitchel and I never became more than friends.

“Got to get my thrills somewhere,” I told him.

“Yeah, well, how about not doing that when your guys are so far away, okay? Love ya, kiddo.”

“Me again,” Mitchel said taking back his phone. “I’ll let you go. Love you.”

“Yes, you do,” I told him. “Good night.”

~~~~~

I settled at my desk the next morning with a cup of strong coffee, half of a nearly stale apple danish, and a pounding headache. I should have called Mitchel when the nightmares came, but he had sounded so tired the night before, and he needed his rest.

 The nightmares had been a mix of angry men in front of the library, stringy haired men trying to trick me into leaving my office and going with them, and the sounds of screams and tears I’d heard from my mother over the phone the evening Todd Sollars broke into her condo the year before. After I finally got back to sleep, it started all over again and I finally gave up. I curled up on the sofa, turned the audio Bible on and listened to a deep voice reading to me from the book of Psalms. At some point the edginess quieted enough I slept, only to come awake with a sore neck from the twisted position I’d ended up in and a headache that even now, after two hours, was not touched by the aspirin I’d taken.

I sipped at my coffee and looked at the calendar on the desk. Mark was going to take pictures of some real estate property and then check out what he’d need to take on the job of photographing goats for calendars. The year before I’d done two calendars, one of goats and another of dogs, and this year they wanted to repeat the process. It would be great for Mark to do something different, and free me up to work more on the McKinley shoots. 

I had planned to get some photos I’d taken at the church digitized and sent to the church administrator so they could use them in future flyers and announcements. Then I was going to check out some sites I’d seen north of Marston, not far from the land my grandfather had once owned. I’d called and made sure I had permission to wander near a wooded area and what looked like an old stone house that had been empty for a long time. Mitchel had kept at me until I promised I would do more of that sort of thing, hoping to find some great shots to take with me for a meeting with a friend of his that owned an art gallery in Kansas City.

I finished my coffee and sighed. I’d already missed the early morning light. For that matter, any morning light would soon be gone. Still, sometimes the afternoon shadows created great affects. I went back into the kitchen and fixed another cup of coffee in the single serve machine. Mitchel still smirked when he saw how often I did that instead of making a pot of coffee.

I threw the danish away and went back to my desk. Maybe I’d get the church photos ready after I took the rural pictures. I’d gotten the usual seven o’clock text that Phil and Barb were on duty and when I finally decided when I would leave, I’d let them know. Barb would ride with me and Phil would be not very far behind us. So far, though, the mind wasn’t cooperating with anything. It was a good thing Mark and I had already discussed his work for the next few days, and he wasn’t scheduled to be back in to download and set up his photos for proofs until the next day.

I put the coffee cup down and leaned my chair back a little, looking around the office. I could have done more, but it was enough. Someday I hoped to move into an office not a part of my home, and with the basic update on the house, I had chosen to not totally deplete my inheritance. It had turned out to be more than my grandfather’s attorney had predicted before he’d gotten the accountants report. Wise investments had significantly continued to increase the inheritance amount, and once my mother’s bills had been paid, and her condo sold, my half of the remaining inheritance had taken care of what remained of my mother’s early debt I’d committed to pay, the office renovation, the basic updates on the house, and still left me with a solid bank account. I wasn’t wealthy by any means, but I was comfortable. And the charities that had received the other half of the inheritance were more than pleased.

Sometimes it felt wrong to be so comfortable. I’d spent so many years crimping and saving, denying myself all but the necessities in order to keep my business going while paying off my mom’s medical bills from the years before Grandfather got her into rehab.  I could still remember the Bible study I’d sat in four months after my mother had died, still trying to figure out all the changes in my life, and someone had mentioned a piece of scripture, “the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord” and I began to feel peace. I could trust God in all I had and all I didn’t have, now or in the future. My joy was in Him, not possessions of any sort.

My cell phone rang the same time I saw Sam through the security camera monitor punching in the outer office door code. Usually, he’d text to let me know he was coming, and I could see it wasn’t him calling me. I picked up the phone. Mitchel.

“Mitchel—”

“Is Sam there?” Mitchel’s terse interruption matched the look on Sam’s face as he stepped toward me.

“Just came in the door.” I frowned. “Sam?”

“Have you gotten any phone calls?”

“Just this one.” I lifted the phone. “Mitchel.”

“Let me talk to Sam,” Mitchel barked.  

I handed the phone to Sam. He took the phone and walked toward the kitchen. I recognized the look on his long face. He was making sure everything was okay inside. And he was talking to Mitch without my overhearing. Movement caught my eye and I saw Phil via the camera feeds, his weapon in his hand, go around the corner of the house as Barb was heading for my office door. Something was definitely wrong.

My office phone rang. I paused, glanced behind me and then picked it up.

“Hello.”

“I don’t care what you say. I know you’re trying to frame me.”

“Who is this?”

A hand reached down to touch my arm. Sam leaned close to my ear and whispered. “Turn on the speaker phone.”

I touched the button and asked again, “Who is this?”

“What was that noise?”

“This is my office. There are all kinds of noises. I don’t know what you heard,” I managed to say mildly. “Have you made a mistake and called the wrong place?”

“Don’t give me that crap.  You’re Margaret Simpson, the photographer. I know what you’re trying to do.” The phone was slammed on the other end. Something landlines offered that cells didn’t, the chance to successfully relay anger. I put the phone back in the cradle and drew in a long breath.

“He just called here.” Sam was saying into my cell phone. “No, nothing here. We’re doing a complete sweep.”

My office door opened, and Barb stepped in, her eyes examining my face and then she turned to Sam, waiting.

“Okay. Here she is.” Sam said before handing me back the cell phone. He motioned to Barb to follow him into the house.

“What’s going on, Mitchel?”

“Sam got a threatening phone call just after getting a threatening email. Threats toward you. The teams are making sure everything is secure.”

“What threats?”

“Unclear. Something somehow associated with that guy and the incident in front of the library. Sam will explain it to you, okay?”

“Mitchel.”

“I have to go, we’re getting ready to board the plane. I’m satisfied it’s under control, I’ll be back tonight. Mom will be there this afternoon. I’ll call you as soon as I can, Retti.”

“Okay.”

“I love you.”

“Yeah, I know.” I drew in a breath, hearing footsteps coming back from the front of the house. “Sam’s coming back. I’ll talk to you later.” I disconnected and put the cell phone down. Moments later Sam and Barb came back into the office. Sam settled in a chair across from me and Barb went out the door.

Sam glanced at his watch. “Okay, I’ve got to make it quick. Carol’s plane is due to land in ninety minutes. We got a phone call saying that your pictures were doctored to make it look like the guy and his grandson were guilty of the break in. Said you would pay. Not three minutes earlier an email came through saying the same thing, but also that you would be taken, punished, and pictures would be released to the press, along with proof of what you’d done.”

I shook my head, totally confused. “What?”

“I know, that’s what I thought, too. I’ve just called Tom, and he’s looking into it. I forwarded him the email I got. Curious I got the first call and email and not you. There were no details at all to tell us what this guy was even talking about.” Tom Willoughby was Sam’s detective friend I had once dated in college and who’d been such a big help with my mother through the years.

“And this is the grandfather of the kid who came at me?”

Sam nodded. “The kid’s name is Chaz Colliver. He’s had different issues in the past. His grandfather raised him. The grandfather’s name is Curtis Owens. Chaz’s mom was Curtis’ daughter. She committed suicide when Chaz was ten. The father was out of the picture before Chaz was even a year old. Owens is a mechanic, owns a garage. No police record. No records of mental illness himself. So, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes those cases take an unexpected turn and if you’re not prepared it can go south really quickly.” He leaned close to me. “But we are prepared, and you’ll be fine here.”

“He knew I took pictures. I didn’t have a camera with me at the library.” I frowned. “One of those things that didn’t make sense?”

Sam nodded. “I’m going to have Kevin watch the property and have Phil and Barb both stay here inside with you. I’ll have Tyler with me since Marshal is with Mitch and Rob. I called in Owen to be an extra hand if needed here. I know you planned on getting out this afternoon, but put that off until we get more information, okay?”

I nodded. “Is Mark in any danger?”

He shook his head. “I doubt it. He wasn’t mentioned, and he doesn’t work much out of here, and doesn’t go on shoots with you. Do you want me to have someone keep an eye on him, just in case?”

“I’ll call him and tell him to stay away for a few days. What he needs to come in here for will handle being postponed short term.”

“Okay. Your team should be on their way over, and I’ve forwarded the email to you as well.”

I nodded, pushing down the anxiety that was trying to rise. “Okay.”

Sam reached over and touched my hand. “Margaret, we’re going to do all we can to keep you safe, you know that.” He held my look for a long time. “Go take some aspirin for that headache. It doesn’t look like you slept well last night. Nightmares?”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry,” said gently. “Maybe if you go relax on your sofa, it will help?”

I gave him a small smile. When Mitchel wasn’t around, I could always count on Sam stepping up to offer practical comfort. “Probably a good idea. I wasn’t getting anything done anyway.”

“Okay, I need to head out to get Carol.” He got to his feet, gave me a quick smile, opened the office door, paused long enough for Phil and Barb to walk in, told Phil to give him a call in about twenty minutes, gave me a quick wave and left.

 Barb locked the door behind him, set a laptop on the desk, and looked at me. “What do you need from us?”

I got up. “I’m going to find something for a headache and occupy the sofa for a while.”

Phil had also brought a laptop with him. “Do you want to go over what the email said?”

“Let me try to lose the headache first,” I told him. “You guys know where everything is if you need anything.”

He looked at Barb, and again I was amazed at the non-verbal communication that happened between them. She nodded. “I’ll watch the cameras from the kitchen.”

Phil grinned at me. “I’m hanging with you.” He gave Barb an amused look and told her, “If Margaret has the sofa, while you’re sitting at the kitchen table, I get that deep chair Mitch got her for Christmas.”

I laughed and went into the kitchen to find aspirin, grabbed a bottle of water and went to try to relax, Phil right behind me.

Three

With a gasp I jerked sideways and nearly rolled off the sofa.

“Hey there,” Phil had swiftly settled on the coffee table, close enough if I needed him but making no move to touch me. “Take a deep breath, blow it out slowly. Through your mouth. There you go. Try it again. And again.”

I got a grip on the edge of the sofa seat and turned to face him. I did as he said, and quickly the racing heart and ragged breathing became more normal.

“Thanks,” I finally said, leaning back against the sofa, not looking at him.

“I still have nightmares,” he said quietly. “Not as often, but sometimes, after something happens that brings back old memories, they’ll creep up on me.” He sighed softly. “I think just about everyone deals with them from time to time.”

I looked at him gratefully. He’d seen my discomfort, even embarrassment, at him observing my reaction to the nightmare. He nodded, picked up the half bottle of water I’d left on the table and handed it to me. “I think I’ll go see what trouble Barb is getting us into.” He gave me a smile. “I think I smell her trying to fix food.”

I smiled back. “You know you guys have free reign of my house. I’m okay.”

“Yes, you are. You’ll figure that out before too long.”

I watched him head for the kitchen and blew out a breath. The man’s melodic voice alone could calm a person. But the gentleness in those dark eyes, and the ability to almost feel what a person was feeling, held an amazing level of comfort. I teased him sometimes about reading minds, but it was only half teasing. In the last year, it had felt many times as if he had done just that. I knew it wasn’t really the case, but was instead a sensitivity to emotions in others, and an incredible power of observation. I looked at the clock above the television. It was after one in the afternoon. Sam and Carol would be back within the hour if they had no delays. I got to my feet, suddenly feeling guilty because even though I loved Carol, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about the wedding, about me, about my work. I wanted to go into my bedroom, close the door and not come out for a very long time. Instead, I headed for the kitchen.

Barb had found some ground beef, loose fried it, added some onions and peppers and a touch of tomato sauce to make sloppy joes. She found frozen French fries and put them in the oven, and when I entered the kitchen Phil was pouring three glasses of iced tea.

I went to the cupboard where I kept bread and pulled out a package of sandwich buns and put them on the table, opened the refrigerator for a small package of shredded cheddar cheese, and sat down just as Phil was putting the tea on the table.

Barb had put both ketchup and mustard on the table and finished putting the food on the table and took a seat. “Usually, it’s you that is fixing food for us. Only right we trade off on occasion. Even if it is your food.”

I knew two bites of a stale danish wouldn’t last me until dinner, and she was always ready to fix me tea, or food, when she saw I was stressed. “Thanks.” I told her, closed my eyes for a brief prayer and served myself. I knew they would wait until I had what I wanted. I fixed a sandwich, took a few fries, and called it good. As they filled their plates, I drank some of my tea. Strong and sweet and almost comforting.

Phil reached over and briefly touched my forearm. “Putting it on your plate isn’t the same as eating.” He smiled at me.

I made a face and started eating.