Authors: Loree Lough
When or how it happened, Nadine couldn’t say, but she found herself wrapped in his powerful arms. Soon, the merriment subsided, and in the ensuing silence, her pulse pounded with anticipation…and dread.
One big hand behind her head, Lamont drew her closer, and when he spoke, his deep voice trembled slightly. “Ahh, Nadine, for such a delicate li’l thing, you sure do have a rock-hard head.”
n the night of the fire, the insurance adjuster came very close to blatantly accusing her of setting fire to her own house, and during those first weeks she and the kids had been with Lamont, Nadine prayed daily that the police and fire marshal would conclude it had been a horrible accident, because without that check, she’d lose everything. And she’d said the same prayer every morning and every night since.
When the doorbell rang and she saw Marcus Templeton on the front porch, her heart hammered. “Please, God,” she prayed as she unbolted the door, “let him have come to deliver good news….”
His height and breadth nearly filled the doorway, blocking most of the sunlight from the usually bright foyer. Waving him inside, she smiled. “Good to see you, Marcus. Please, come on in.”
It felt more than a little odd, welcoming a visitor into Lamont’s home, as if she’d become the lady of the house. The idea died a quick death as two long strides put Templeton smack in the middle of the entry, where he stood, booted feet shoulder width apart, tapping
a packet of official-looking papers against his meaty thigh.
“How’s Marta?” she asked. “I heard she’s been under the weather.”
Templeton’s smoke-raspy interruption echoed in the entryway. “She’s fine,” he barked. Then, as if regretting his gruff response, he cleared his throat. “It was just the flu, but you know Marta. Everything’s a big production.” Inhaling deeply, he held out the papers. “’Fraid it’s official business that brings me here this mornin’, Nadine.”
Every nerve twitched as she accepted the blue-sheathed package. “What is it?”
She blinked up at him, wishing Lamont would get back from town. He would sure be a comfort right about now. “But…whatever for?”
Marcus’s thick mustache slanted above a “You must be joking” smirk. “Look, Nadine, we go back a long way, so I ain’t gonna beat around the bush.”
She made no attempt to mask her annoyance. “Good, because that’d be a colossal waste of time, and unnecessarily hard on the shrubbery.”
One bushy brow rose as he contemplated her remark. Then he said, “You can’t be surprised to hear that you’re the only suspect in the house fire.”
Nadine held her breath. A suspect? How had he come up with such a crazy notion?
“My investigation is purt-near complete,” he continued, “and—”
“Marcus,” Lamont said, sidling up beside Nadine.
She’d never been so happy to see anyone in her life. Despite decades of single-handedly running her ranch—with reasonable success, until the past few years—she’d
never perfected Lamont’s ease with the likes of Marcus Templeton.
“What brings you all the way out here?” he asked, right hand extended in greeting.
The man nodded at the papers Nadine held. “I’ll need her to come to town, soon as possible.”
She took a step toward the growling bear of a man. “Why?”
“Some things I’d like to ask you, some things I’d like you to look at,” he offered, “startin’ with the insurance investigator’s report.”
“Can’t we take care of that here?”
He shook his head. “Nope. It’s procedure. Any statement you make has to be a matter of record, or it won’t hold up in court.”
“Court?” Nadine’s heart rate doubled.
Before Marcus could explain, a Potter County squad car pulled into the circular drive. No one spoke as Sheriff Hayden Wallace slid from behind the wheel, hitching up his trousers as he climbed the porch steps toward the still-open door. “Mornin’, folks.”
“Glad you could make it,” Marcus said.
At first sight of the documents in Nadine’s hands, Wallace winced apologetically. “I see you already got the bad news.”
Lamont relieved her of the papers and, unfolding them, began reading.
“I don’t understand,” Nadine said. “At the hospital that night, you said—”
“I said we were finished, for the time being. I never meant to imply that the investigation was complete.” He shrugged one burly shoulder and launched into a recitation of his scientific facts.
Nadine, straining to pay attention, massaged her
temples. A nightmare had awakened Amy, who’d spent the remaining hours in the security of her grandmother’s arms. Unfortunately, providing that comfort proved costly to Nadine, whose fitful sleep was peppered with dreams of Ernest and fire and the tension between Adam and Julie.
She’d prepared a hearty breakfast and lunch for the rest of the household, but hadn’t felt much like eating, herself. Nadine blamed sleep deprivation and hunger for the thrumming, hissing sounds pounding in her ears.
“…point of origin…accelerant…source of ignition…flashpoint…”
His voice faded in and out, as if someone was slowly rotating the volume dial on a car radio on, then off again. As the hulking bodies of the three men in the foyer became shadowy, undulating shapes, a dizzying yellow haze veiled her world. She’d never fainted—not once in her life—but something told Nadine that’s exactly what was about to happen, right here, right now. Though she gulped air to prevent it, her body went weak and her knees buckled. Odd, she thought, puddling to the floor, how like a marionette she felt, one whose puppeteer had let go of the strings. The icy marble felt good against her clammy cheek, and she gratefully closed her eyes…
“Nadine? Nadine, look at me. Open your eyes, darlin’…”
Despite the fog shrouding her mind, she recognized Lamont. Recognized, too, the same troubled tones that had tinged his otherwise honeyed voice on the night of the fire.
After he’d risked his life to save her own.
While she lay limp and nearly unconscious in his strong arms.
And the sirens wailed closer, closer.
As paramedics took her from his caring embrace.
What a peculiar dream this was, where her thoughts surged from how peaceful and calm Lamont’s life had been, until that night, until she and her family invaded his home and his world, to the realization that she should’ve listened to her better instincts, taken an apartment in town, sold some few acres to finance the rebuilding and tide them over until they were back on their feet.
But she couldn’t go back in time. Couldn’t undo what she’d done to him.
His voice reached her again, soothing, comforting, reassuring. “I’m fine,” she tried to say. But her brain and her tongue refused to cooperate. Maybe the truth was she wasn’t fine. How could she be, with the authorities convinced that she’d burned down her own house? Worse, she had no one but herself to blame.
You’ll find a way,
she’d repeated to herself, month after month when the bills came due and the money to pay them didn’t materialize.
You always do.
Stubborn pride kept her from turning to God. Too late now to expect the Lord to answer her prayers.
Shame replaced guilt, remorse took the place of regret. This was no time for self-pity. She needed to get back on her feet, fight to prove her innocence.
“That’s it, sweetie,” Lamont was saying, “look at me.”
He cupped her chin in one powerful hand, held her upper body close to his, so close she could feel the hard beating of his heart. His big, generous heart.
“Get her a glass of water,” she heard him say before heavy footsteps hurried down the long hall. Lamont’s big fingers combed back her bangs, stroked her cheeks
while cabinet doors opened and closed in the kitchen. Which one of the important, uniformed men, she wondered, had obeyed his water-fetching orders? Only a man like Lamont London could evoke such immediate obedience from men of authority.
She heard running water, the return of booted feet as Lamont helped her sit up, tasted cool water as it touched her lips. “Thanks,” she said, meeting his worried eyes.
“Ah, darlin’,” he said, pulling her closer, “you sure do know how to scare a fella.”
Hayden got onto one knee beside them and removed his Stetson. “You okay, Nadine?”
Nodding, she scrambled to her feet. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Steadying herself on the foyer table, she said, “Guess that’ll teach me to skip meals.”
“I still need you to come down to the office,” said Marcus.
“Marcus,” Hayden barked, “at least give her a minute to get her sea legs, why don’t you?” He sent her a friendly wink. “You’ve known this li’l gal all her life. If she says she’ll be there, you can count on it.”
Marcus shrugged again. “Desperate people do desperate things.”
Nadine took a deep breath, let it out slowly before saying, “I’ll grant you, Marcus, these are pretty dire circumstances.” Lifting her chin a notch, she said, “Name the day and time.”
He glanced at his watch. “Three o’clock?”
“Today?” Lamont asked, his voice reflecting both shock and disdain. “But that barely gives her time to—”
“I’d just as soon get it over with.”
“Then I’m coming, too.”
Amy skipped into the foyer, a grinning Obnoxious on her heels.
“We’ll need to find Julie or Adam,” Nadine whispered, “let them know we’ll be gone for a few hours.”
“Where you goin’, Grandmom? Can I come, too?”
She squatted and gathered her granddaughter in a loving hug. “Not this time, sweetie pie. I have some important—” she bit her lower lip to still its trembling “—some business to take care of in town, and you’d be bored silly.” Holding Amy at arm’s length, she winked. “If you’re a good girl while Lamont and I are gone, I’ll make your favorite for dessert.”
Clapping, Amy giggled. “Oh, goody! A hot fudge sundae?”
“With double fudge.”
Satisfied, Amy hop-skipped all the way to the top step, where her mother scooped her up. For an instant, the younger woman’s gaze held Nadine’s. Standing, Nadine summoned courage she didn’t feel. “I don’t want you kids to worry, okay? Everything’s going to be fine.” Julie’s anxious smile wavered slightly before she ducked out of sight.
The peck of dog claws on the marble floor drew Nadine’s focus back to the foyer, where Lamont closed the door none too gently behind Marcus and Hayden. A frown furrowed his brow as he glanced toward the top step. Was he, like Nadine, wondering why Julie had appeared and disappeared so quickly?
He shrugged and shook his head, then took Nadine’s hand and led her into the kitchen. He pulled out a chair and pointed at its red-and-white-checked seat. “Don’t you move from there, young lady, until I get some vittles into your belly. How’s fried eggs and bacon sound?”
She nodded. “Sounds great.” But her growling stom
ach was the least of her worries. A glance at the clock told her that in a few hours, she might take her next meal behind bars. She was so lost in thought that when Lamont put a steaming mug of coffee in front of her, Nadine lurched.
He gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Remember what you told Julie earlier?”
That everything would be fine? Right, Nadine thought with a harrumph.
“Well, it’s true,” Lamont said.
She smiled past hot tears that stung her eyes. “From your lips to God’s ear.”
Nadine didn’t think she’d ever spoken the words with more fervor.
The meeting didn’t go well. Not well at all. If somebody didn’t present the cops with tangible proof of Nadine’s innocence…
Lamont didn’t want to think about what could happen to her.
They had an hour or so before supper, so he suggested that Nadine spend it napping with Amy and much to his surprise—and relief—she went without argument.
Locked in his office, he rifled through his Rolodex, searching for a number he hadn’t called in years. His college roommate had invested twenty years with the Big Apple’s homicide division before an on-the-job injury forced his early retirement. Never one to let life pass him by, Frank Duvall had come home to Texas and opened a one-man private investigation service.
“D and D Investigations.”
“Well, as I live and breathe, if it isn’t Lanky Frankie, himself.”
“Lamont London, you ol’ hoot-owl you. How long has it been?”
It had always amazed him that such a booming voice could resonate from such a slender frame. “Too long,” he said, chuckling.
“So how are ya, pal o’ mine?” Frank said.
“Good, good. How ’bout you? Still a confirmed bachelor?”
The familiar grating laugh wafted into Lamont’s ear. “Is the ’65 Corvette still the best car on wheels?”
Back in college, Frank had inherited a couple thousand dollars from his grandfather’s estate, and spent every dime overhauling a beat-up ’Vette. “Don’t tell me you’re still drivin’ that bucket of bolts.”
“Just put a new convertible top on ’er, as a matter of fact.” A second ticked silently by before he said, “But something tells me you didn’t call to talk about my ‘baby.’”
“If you can meet me for breakfast tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about why I called.”
What a relief it was to walk into the family room and see Lamont reading the paper. “You’re up way past your bedtime,” Nadine said, plopping onto the corner of the sofa nearest his chair.
“Couldn’t sleep.” He folded the newspaper, and tossed it onto the coffee table.
She rubbed her eyes. “Me, either. I’ll probably see those photographs in my mind’s eye until I draw my last breath.”
Eight-by-ten color photos of the fire’s aftermath seemed etched to the insides of her eyelids. After studying the height of smoke patterns on what remained of her walls and looking at eerie, ghostly shapes forever
burned into the floorboards, Marcus had determined that the fire had been set deliberately. “Funny,” she said, “but I didn’t notice gasoline and kerosene when we were at the house. Didn’t Marcus say it was the first thing he detected once he got on the scene?”
“Yeah, but you’d inhaled buckets of smoke, darlin’. No way your sniffer was working properly that morning.”
Yes, that could very well explain why she hadn’t smelled—what had Marcus called them?—accelerants.
He reached across the end table and grabbed her hand. “Why didn’t you tell me you were in so much trouble?”
“Shame. Embarrassment.” She shrugged. “I’m still not sure how things got so far out of control. I’ve been managing the Greeneland books since long before Ernest died, so I should have seen the signs.” She sighed. “Guess I didn’t want to face the obvious, and do what had to be done.”