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Authors: Freda Vasilopoulos

Tags: #Romantic Suspense

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BOOK: Past Tense
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No, better to wait and see if anything else happened.

Putting her bowl into the sink, she went into the bedroom to dress for work. This time she wasn’t going to be late.

She walked to the bus stop, pausing at a news agent’s shop to buy a paper. The Regal Arms was going to be off limits for her for some time, and Dubray was the least of it. She couldn’t risk seeing Tony again.

She felt a momentary twinge of regret. He was an attractive man, with a quality of integrity that went deeper than his physical appearance. The gerberas still brightened her kitchen.

Professor Eldridge lived in Richmond. The Underground would have been a more efficient means of transportation, but Sam hadn’t lived in London so long that she didn’t enjoy the vistas from the top of a double-decker bus. She willingly put up with the inconvenience of the ponderous vehicle’s slow progress through the traffic.

The sun shone down on her head as she walked up the narrow street toward the professor’s house. She wished she could pull the pins out of her hair and let it wave loose, in the free and easy way she’d once worn it. But that didn’t go with her present image. Safety lay in the unobtrusive guise that had become second nature.

The street, rough with cobblestones and worn asphalt, had once seen better days. The rows of brick terraced houses showed the decline of a gentility that remained only in the lace curtains that hung at many windows.

Samantha pressed the buzzer next to the yellow-painted door, listening to the harsh peal of the bell inside. As she waited she idly surveyed the street. A long black Jaguar with tinted glass cruised slowly by, as if the driver were searching for an address. After it had passed her, the car sped up, turning with a squeal of tires into the next road.

She stared after it, wondering at the incongruity of such a luxurious car on this street. The thought fled as the professor’s daily housekeeper opened the door.

“Oh, good morning, miss. Won’t you come in?”

“Thank you.” She stepped into the dim hall, inhaling the homey scents of lemon polish and freshly brewed coffee.

“He’s in the library, miss. Just go right through.”

The library was a tiny room overlooking the patch of garden at the back of the house. Crowded with books and mementos of a long and varied lifetime, there was hardly room for a desk in the middle.

“Good morning, Miss Clark.” Professor Eldridge lifted his head and regarded her with eyes only slightly dimmed by age. He pushed his old-fashioned glasses up his nose, and ran his fingers through the lock of hair that persisted in flopping over his forehead.

He stood up, extending his hand, a slight man of about Samantha’s height. “I’m so glad you could make it this morning. At my age, one can’t afford too many postponements.”

“I had a bit of difficulty yesterday,” Samantha explained.

The professor lifted one shaggy brow. “Oh? Not too serious, I hope.”

“No, it’s all right. But I may have to leave London.”

Eldridge’s affable face creased into lines of concern. “Not before you finish this work, I trust.”

For a moment panic welled up in her. No attachments, she’d promised herself. Yet here she was again, caught, proving that no one lived in a vacuum. “No, we’ll finish the book.” She sat down and began to sort through her papers and dictionaries. “Shall we get to work?”

* * * *

The front of the bus, where she liked to sit, was occupied when she headed back to Central London that afternoon. She moved toward the back, oblivious of the press of people around her.
She’d taken a moment that morning to call Mr. Collins. As she’d suspected, he knew nothing of the envelope, citing the efficiency of his secretary. She’d been slightly relieved to learn that no one had contacted him requesting her address. He had assured her that neither he nor Mrs. Graham would give it out.

She shifted the bag of groceries she’d picked up at a supermarket near Professor Eldridge’s house. Her mind strayed to Tony Theopoulos.

Would she ever hear from him again? Not likely. She couldn’t suppress a faint regret that it had to be that way.

The bus lurched to an abrupt stop. She glanced out the window at the sea of cars hemming them in on the winding street. Rush hour. She smiled ironically. When nobody was able to rush.

The traffic began to move again, sluggishly, and the sweating passengers murmured their approval. Sam looked down to see a large black car inch past and forge a new place for itself ahead of the bus.

She felt frazzled and out of sorts by the time she reached her flat, hoping that Miss Hunnicott wouldn’t make an appearance. No such luck.

“Good evening, Miss Clark. Your telephone has been ringing all day. Most annoying. I couldn’t even take my nap.”

“I’m sorry,” Samantha said, although what she could have done about it, she didn’t know. But again alarm woke in her. Who would be phoning her during working hours, when it was obvious she was out?

“It hasn’t rung for the past hour,” Miss Hunnicott continued.

“They must have given up. But I’m home now, if they try again.” She set down the bag of groceries and took out her key. “I’d better put my things inside.”

“Your letter yesterday—” The faded blue eyes sparked with curiosity. “It was important?”

Sam nodded, carrying her bag inside. “Yes. Thank you again. Goodbye, Miss Hunnicott.” She firmly closed the door.

The phone rang twice during the evening, making Samantha wonder if Miss Hunnicott had been exaggerating. The first time a man tried to sell her insurance. Annoyed, she hung up. Her number was in phone book, making it available to anyone, but it was listed only as S. Clark, one of ten other S. Clarks.

The second time it rang, Samantha was brushing her teeth. Her mouth filled with foam, she picked it up, hearing a humming silence followed almost immediately by the dial tone.

Wrong number.

* * * *

Feeling guilty because of the day she’d missed, and sensing the professor’s urgency to complete the project, Samantha had agreed to work the next day, a Saturday.

Late that afternoon, when she arrived home, two policeman stood outside her door, deep in conversation with Miss Hunnicott.

“Miss Clark?” The old woman’s high-pitched voice carried easily along the short hall. “Oh, she’s an excellent neighbor, not like so many young people nowadays, with their loud music, tattoos, and strange manners.”

“Good evening, Miss Hunnicott,” Samantha said rather more loudly than necessary.

“Oh, good evening, Miss Clark.”

Before she could say anything further, the taller policeman handed Samantha his card. “I’m PC Nelson, and this is PC Hassam.”

Nelson consulted a small notebook. “Are you Miss Samantha Clark?”

“Yes, I am,” Samantha said in a clipped tone that hid her inward shaking. This was the very thing every fugitive feared, the attention of the police. “Is there a problem?”

“I hope not.” He glanced at Miss Hunnicott. “Thank you for your help, madam.”

“Not at all,” she said, looking disappointed when the constable turned back to Samantha.

“Could we have a word with you, Miss Clark?”

He remained standing just inside the door, his colleague beside him. He gazed around the flat with an air of unconcern that didn’t fool Sam for a moment. She was sure he saw everything, took in every nuance of worn furniture and plain curtains. And the lack of anything uniquely personal on public display.

“You’ve lived here how long?” Nelson asked, even though he must have extracted this piece of information from Miss Hunnicott.

“About five months.”

“And you work as a freelance translator?”

“Yes.” She hesitated, then plunged ahead. “What’s this about, constable?”

Instead of answering, he fixed his eyes on the carrier bag she had hung on a hook on the kitchen wall. “You shop in the Lily Maid supermarket in Richmond? It’s a long way from here.”

“I’m translating a book there,” Samantha said with a touch of defensiveness. “It’s convenient for me to shop before I come home.”

“Did you today?”

She shook her head. “No, I worked longer than usual and came straight home.”

“So you didn’t pass the supermarket about three o’clock, or see anything unusual?”

“No. At three o’clock I still at Professor Eldridge’s.”

“And you left when?”

“About half past four.”

The constable cleared his throat, scribbling in his notebook. “Professor Eldridge has a housekeeper, a Mrs. Howard?”

“Yes.”

“Did you see her before you left the house?”

What was he getting at? “No, she’d gone to do some shopping for tea.” She lifted her eyes to meet the policeman’s, her stomach suddenly fluttering. “She might have been at the Lily Maid supermarket around three. She went out shortly before.”

“We know. She was there.”

“Then you know I wasn’t there,” Samantha said with a flash of temper.

He looked at her with maddening calm. “Do you have any enemies, Miss Clark?”

Her palms were wet and she surreptitiously wiped them on her skirt. Fighting down her panic, she managed to keep her voice steady. “Enemies? Why would I have enemies?”

“Indeed,” he said evenly, leaving her completely unprepared for the question she’d been dreading. “Could I see some identification, please?”

Identification. What could she show him that wouldn’t give her away? Sweat trickled coldly down her sides. Thinking quickly, she rummaged in her handbag and came up with one of her business cards, made out in her new name.

The constable pursed his lips as he studied the card. Samantha waited, her heart pounding. If he asked to see her passport, there would be all kinds of questions, the first being why she’d changed her name. Not that that was illegal unless it was done with intention to commit fraud. But it could get sticky.

“May I keep this?”

She let out her breath. “Yes, of course. Could you tell me what this is all about?” The constable might be unaware of the trauma he had put her through, but she felt she had a right to know why she’d been singled out for questioning.

He snapped the notebook shut and tucked it into his pocket. “I was hoping you could, Miss Clark. But since you weren’t at the market today—I’d be careful if I were you. There was an apparent kidnapping attempt at the Lily Maid supermarket about three-fifteen today. The manager called police after witnesses said a woman was forced into a car. Someone saw a gun. Of course, reports vary a great deal in these cases. Eyewitnesses often make mistakes.”

“Was anyone hurt?”

“No. That’s what was odd about the incident. The victim was released less than a block away. It appears to have been simple robbery after all. Only her handbag was taken.”

“I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

“We questioned people who were in the shop at the time, among them your professor’s housekeeper, Mrs. Howard. In fact, she agreed to come down to the police station with us.”

That’s why she hadn’t returned by the time I left
, Samantha thought. “But she must have told you where I was.”

“Yes, afterwards. When the victim was brought to the station. You see, Miss Clark, Mrs. Howard caught a glimpse of the woman as she was being pushed into the car and thought it was you.”

Sam’s mouth dropped open. “Me? But she knew I was still at the house.”

PC Nelson nodded. “That’s what she said. She thought you might have gone out after all. She only caught a glimpse before the car drove off. It was a black Jaguar.”

“A Jaguar? I saw a black Jaguar a couple of times in the neighborhood the past few days. I wonder if it was the same one?”

“You didn’t get the license number?”

Sam shook her head. “No, I didn’t. What happened with the woman?”

“She was set free and called the police. We brought her into the station. Mrs. Howard saw at once that she was mistaken. But the woman did have blonde hair the color of yours, and a similar build.”

“You haven’t recovered her handbag?”

“Not so far. Probably in a bin somewhere by now.” He touched the brim of his cap, and opened the door. “Goodbye, Miss Clark. Thank you for your help.”

What help? Samantha thought as she closed the door behind them and walked back into the living room. She hadn’t been any help at all, and she could have been if she’d been more observant.

The black Jaguar must have been tailing her, possibly even before she’d noticed it yesterday. She could only take comfort in the fact that whoever was after her, and she no longer doubted that someone was, still wasn’t sure of her identity. But her tenuous anonymity wouldn’t last much longer.

She had to be prepared.

 

Chapter Four

 

Tony gave Samantha a couple of days’ breathing space, but she was never far from his thoughts, that pale beautiful face with those haunted eyes like silver rain.

She intrigued him. The intangibles had hooked him, the change in accent, her evasiveness when he’d confronted her with it. She was in some kind of trouble, and while it might be something totally personal, he couldn’t help wondering.

The mystery of her appearance at this crucial time—

If she came from Montréal, and did translations, the chances were that she knew diplomats and politicians. Or she worked for import-export companies. Either way she probably had a fair knowledge of international trade. Had her presence in the Regal Arms been a coincidence? Or part of a plan?

The upcoming trade conference between France and Canada had already been postponed once due to security leaks. That was why London had been chosen for the meetings, rather than the more volatile Montréal.

Tony couldn’t afford to overlook any possible threat to the conference’s smooth execution. Not even the seemingly innocent Samantha Clark. While the dates of the conference had been obscured by tight security for weeks, speculations were beginning to appear in the press. The event would soon be announced in public, and then the dangers of its disruption would increase.

Samantha was hiding something. He knew it as surely as he knew she’d been dismayed to find him at her door the other night. And he couldn’t ignore the dichotomy between her appearance and her demeanor. A self-effacing image might enhance her ability to find freelance work, but it could also hide a more sinister purpose.

BOOK: Past Tense
3.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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