When she regained her senses—a little sick to her stomach—he was kneeling, holding her in his arms. Her cheek was cradled in the warm place between his bare shoulder and his chin.
“I’m sorry,” he said contritely. “I didn’t expect that! I couldn’t catch you. You’re going to have a hell of a headache later, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry, Lorena. Here.” She knew he was trying hard, but it only made things worse. “Put your head down between your knees. That should bring the blood back.”
She leaned over. What humiliation.
And then she started to cry. Damn it anyway!
“Sweet girl,” he whispered, securing her once more against his sturdy shoulder. “It’s okay. Really it is.” His eyes were so kind, his voice so soothing. He leaned back against the nearby wall, stretched his legs out along the floor and brought her tightly into the embrace of his arms, against the warmth of his bare chest, his hand in her hair. And then his beautiful lips sought and found hers and she couldn’t cry any more, even if she wanted to. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pushed her fingers up through his hair and they both slid to the floor. He made short work of the dark shirt, and her bra came with it, sliding easily up her arms and over her head. “My god,” he said a few exquisite moments later, “I’m so sorry, Lorena. I didn’t mean to pounce like that!” But he didn’t seem very sorry she thought. And she wasn’t sorry at all! His lips were brushing hers very lightly even as he spoke. They had just passed over her cheeks, her neck, her ears, raining gentle kisses. They moved down to her breasts. He stroked her arms, her sides, her back, played around the waistline of her jeans, as if wishing to seek out a greater treasure. “It’s just—well, I’m almost consumed by—urges I can hardly resist. I can’t keep my hands away from you.” He lifted his head and looked down into her face. “But we have a task. They’ll worry about us if we’re gone too long.”
“I quite understand,” Lorie said breathlessly. “I guess we’d better get busy.” She stretched up and backwards for the shirt and her undergarment, both of which she supposed were somewhere on the floor near her head. The effort melded her upper body to his. Every place skin touched skin she burst to fire—flesh trembling at the touch of his fingers and his lips.
But dammit, he was right—this was not exactly the optimum time. Did she care? Well, she knew Aunt Carol would worry if they didn’t check in soon. She grabbed her clothes and sat up beside him. With a deep sigh he brought her gently back into his embrace.
“I don’t remember having put greasepaint—right there,” she said a moment later as she lay again beneath his loving gaze. She indicated a particularly sensitive spot, “nor there.”
“Nor do I remember putting it here.” He lifted her hand onto his warm chest, and she felt the accelerated beating of his heart. “But we are moving a little too fast, I do think.” Very gently he began to wipe greasepaint from various parts of her body with the scarf she had brought for her hair.
Once again their lips came together in a magical burst of heat and passion. It was all she could do not to divest herself of the rest of her clothing.
“Oh, good grief,” she said after a time. “Was there something we were supposed to be doing here?”
“Damnation,” he said impatiently, “they’ll be waiting for us, won’t they?” He was quiet for a long moment. “Lorie, in case you’re wondering—I don’t usually … ”
“Neither do I. Really!”
“But it just seemed so—right … ”
“I’ve never felt like this about anyone.”
“Neither have I,” Lorie said in what she considered the greatest understatement of her life. “But what bothers me … ” she hesitated as she sat up—as he fumbled to help her fasten the bra behind her back, “is how I think—even if I didn’t want to … ”
“ … you sensed my true identity. From the beginning. I thought you did. How the devil does this thing … ? Oh, there it goes.”
“I tried not to know … .” She felt again like she wanted to cry.
“I know. But Lorie, you have a rare gift. You are unnaturally perceptive. Or you would still disbelieve … ” He turned her toward him, cradled her face in his hands, gave her another kiss, then helped her with her shirt.
“Being perceptive in one way seems to have lost me a career,” she said pensively as her head re-emerged. Tears began to form. “But if you’re right—and to get back to the reason we’re here—besides this … ” Another passionate kiss, and she added breathlessly, “ … I’m not sure I’m perceptive enough to understand what else is being played out here.”
“Tell me what you think is happening, Lorie?”
She leaned against him, looking up into his face. “Besides something or someone trying very hard to bring us together, you mean?”
Very gently he brushed her tears away. He pulled her tightly against him and buried his face in her hair. “I do believe that. I do believe we were destined to meet. But give me your first thoughts, my darling dark-haired angel, on what’s happening in Oak Hill—Randolph City, they call it now. I find I trust your conclusions more than any others I’ve heard.”
She thought about it for a time. He really wanted her assessment. Under the circumstances, that was a huge responsibility. She knew so little. Nothing compared to her aunt Carol and the others. Could she really help him? She said softly, “All I know is that our friend Rolf Maratti is playing some kind of game with all of us. And a good man, his lawyer, Arthur Ehrlich, is backing him up. I don’t think they are the enemy. But they may be working for the enemy. Or something else is being played out here entirely. That’s real definite, isn’t it? I’ll try to help, but Jeff, I just got into this game … .”
Chuckling, he pulled her to her feet, then reached for the sham bandage and his own two shirts, white and black
“I don’t doubt you at all, having observed with wonder the logic that flows from your sharp mind.” With her help he was soon dressed again, preparing to refresh his face camouflage.
“But Jeff, what I do isn’t that hard. I watch. I listen. I put two and two together. Like I—somehow—knew … oh crap!” Feeling her knees go wobbly, she sank onto a chair that had been drawn up beside the cigarette table. Frowning, Jeff knelt before her on one knee, supporting her. She reached out to him, touched his face gently with her fingertips, his lips, the deep scar on his forehead. “Damn it, Major Jefferson Richard Preston, I’ve fallen head over heels in love with you! You feel like a real living human being. You act like one. But you can’t be, can you? I’m going to lose you when this is finished, aren’t I?”
The expression on his face was very solemn. He took her hands in his. “Lorie, those lovely green eyes of yours, your sweet laughter, have dominated all my dreams. I knew you were to be my guide almost the minute I saw you. Finding the will may be only part of the reason for my presence here. I don’t know what else might lie ahead. But I agree—we are meant to be together, at least for now. Perhaps we will have the good fortune to make our own future. But you must understand, dear one—since we don’t know—we must both also be prepared for loss.”
“How can I lose you now?” The tears started again. She tried to find a tissue somewhere.
He rose and pulled her to her feet, then wrapped her into his arms. “We might never have met at all if you had not come here with your aunt. Something much larger is at play here, Lorena, with many implications. I think the loss of your nursing career is part and parcel of a greater plan. I don’t know how much time we have. But we can make the best of that time. We have had these few private moments. We will make time for more, much more, before this is done.”
She wiped at her eyes, and finally successful with her tissue search, blew her nose. “I will like that, Major Preston.” She was suddenly swept with a vision of how barren her life would have been if she had never met him and she folded her arms tightly, possessively, around his body. She buried her face in his shirt and felt his strength surge through her.
Finally gathering in her emotions, taking a deep breath, she turned back to the cigarette table upon which rested the green file box. She reseated herself. “Okay then,” she looked up at him, “in that case, let’s see what else we have found for all our worried relatives.” As he had done earlier, she opened the unlocked lid. “It’s the will all right.” She held up a rather bulky document, spread out the long pages and started to read. “Last Will and Testament of Jon Thomas Randolph III.” It was dated several years in the past. She flipped to the last page. Jon Randolph had signed the will personally. But the names and addresses of the witnesses were typed rather than hand-written. Obviously this was not the original copy.
“But it is proof,” Jeff said to her reassuringly, “that there is a will. That should count for something.”
“And now we have the names of the witnesses. That should count for something, too.”
Lorie returned the document to the green box, closed and latched it. Jeff placed it in the backpack and slung the backpack over his shoulder. “They’ll be wondering what happened to us.”
She looked up again into Jeff’s face, once again covered with greasepaint. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her tenderly. Then with gentle fingers he smoothed the transferred black substance across her cheeks and forehead. Every inch of her body smoldered at the touch of his fingers. “May these memories last forever,” he whispered. He switched off the light and opened the hidden panel. “And now it’s time to call our friend, Sid, and have him waiting for us at the fence.”
They heard Moultrie’s voice. He was talking to someone right outside the front window. Silently they crept through the drawing room, the hallway, and the pantry. Behind closed doors, Lorie pulled out her cell phone and made the call.
Carefully they descended to the mechanical room and moved directly to the root cellar. The stone wall gave way fairly easily once Jeff located the hidden latch and then they were back in the dark, damp tunnel. Jeff took Lorie’s hand and with the help of the small flashlight they traversed the distance rather more quickly than when they had come into the house.
He ascended the ladder first and tried to raise the trapdoor. For a moment it stuck, then broke free and moved upward with a deep groan and an annoying scraping sound.
There was a voice from close outside. “Moultrie, get out here!”
“Quick!” He reached for her hands, pulled her bodily up the steps. The trapdoor closed quietly. He set the floor panels into place with even more haste, then hoisted Lorie up to the escape window. She squirmed out, made a half-twist and dropped silently to the ground. He handed out the backpack and was beside her an instant later, closing the window as he came.
Footsteps were pounding across the lawn. “Moultrie,” Daniels called from in front of the summer kitchen, “I heard it again. Someone’s there.”
“This better be good.”
Lights flashed around the summer kitchen. Lorie flattened herself next to Jeff in the stone recess behind the bushes.
Jeff bent over quietly, seemingly searching the ground, then rose and tossed something over the tall hedge—a stone, she guessed. It landed with a “crack” deep inside the maze. He hunched down and pulled her down beside him.
“There. You see?” Daniel’s voice was excited.
Moultrie was more cautious. “Where was it?”
“Over there. In them bushes.”
Again Jeff rose and threw something into the maze. At the “thump” the two men spoke again, this time with voices that were soft.
“I think you’re right.”
“I looked at those bushes yesterday, Moultrie. There’s only one opening. You stay there and I’ll go in and chase him out to you.”
Lights flashed over the branches. Daniels had started into the maze. “Hey, Moultrie, there’s more bushes here than I thought. I’m not sure which way to go.”
Jeff put a hand on Lorie’s shoulder and let it rest lightly.
A beam of light suddenly shone through the bushes directly at them. Jeff’s hand tightened. Black clothing and dark greasepaint served its purpose. The light turned and Daniels moved on.
“Is he out yet?” Daniels sounded somewhat anxious.
For many long minutes they heard the man tramping about through the foliage. Finally he called out again. “Moultrie?”
“You’d of known it if there was.”
There was silence for a few minutes. Then a plaintive voice. “Moultrie, I think I’m lost.”
“Well, there’s this kind of big open space. I’ve been here twice already.”
“Oh for god’s sake, Daniels.”
“Get me out of here, Moultrie.”
“Okay, just hold it where you are. I’ve got some fishing line in my car. I’ll follow it in and get you out. Gawd!” They heard his heavy footsteps retreating across the lawn.
“Now,” Jeff breathed. They wormed their way with no more than a rustle between stone and tightly thatched greenery to the freedom of the lawn. Like shadows they glided across the grass, re-entered the woods, and within seconds found the path.
She kept an eye open for her boots, found them sitting where she had left them on the trail, tied the laces together and slung them over her shoulder.
Voices could be heard back at the maze, one plaintive, one angry.
“They’ll be at it for awhile.” Jeff was chuckling softly.
When they came out of the woods, the Baileys’ minivan was parked by the side of the road, dark and quiet. Jeff flashed his light and headlights flashed back. Sid stepped out of the car. “Any luck?” he whispered.
“We found the will,” Lorie said. “Not an original, but good enough to put up a fight.”
“Hallelujah!” Sid said. “Look who I found waiting for me when I got home.” The passenger door opened and Officer Randy Ross emerged from the car.
“Good to see you again,” Randy said, reaching for Jeff’s hand and then Lorie’s. “If you hadn’t called when you did, we were prepared to bring a posse out here to rescue you.”
“I wouldn’t let him get so rash,” Sid chuckled softly. “I figured you’d call if you ran into problems. Okay, let’s get outta here.”
Lorie slipped into the back seat, shoved her boots under the front seat of the car and pulled the backpack onto her lap. Jeff joined her. His arm went around her and in the darkness she leaned her head against his shoulder, ignoring Randy’s crisp “Seatbelts, everyone.” She remained quiet during the trip home. Jeff answered questions in simple declarative sentences, unembellished, indicating that they didn’t yet know what they had, but it was bound to be interesting.
Carol ran out to the driveway an hour later as Sid made the final turn into the doctor’s parking area. “Oh my dears,” she said, obviously distraught. “Is everyone okay? We’ve been just frantic. We should never have let you go.”
Jeff stepped out, offered his hand to Lorie and she emerged from the car. She handed the heavy backpack to Sid and went into her aunt’s protective arms. “It’s okay, Aunt Carol,” she said tiredly. “No one saw us. And for what it’s worth, we have a copy of the will.”
“Oh, thank goodness, thank goodness. Then it was worth it. I was thinking what a foolish old woman I was to let you go into that kind of danger. If your parents had called … !”
“You’re neither old nor foolish,” Lorie chided gently. “It had to be done, and we did it.”
“She has proven to be one of the bravest women I know,” Jeff said warmly. “You should be very proud of her.”
“I am,” her aunt said. “I am very proud of her. And thank you for saying that, Jeff. Well, let’s get inside and see what you found. And you two might just want to wash that stuff off your faces now.”
Sid had lifted the green metal file box triumphantly out of the backpack and it was now sitting in the middle of the round table in Phil’s kitchen. Still standing, the tall druggist was opening it just as Lorie and Carol joined the others. He pulled out the will. “By god, this is it! I knew it had been typed and signed.”
“Who were the witnesses?” Sue asked. She turned back to the coffeepot and gathered up some mugs.
Sid seated himself and flipped to the last page. “Mike Neil, of course. His lawyer. Here’s a name I don’t recognize. Ewen Taylor.” He looked up. “Anyone heard of him.”
“Taylor Electronics,” Randy Ross said, pulling up another chair for himself. “Big name in Atlanta. He’s what you might call a computer systems entrepreneur. Into a lot of things. Airline industry. Staging for rock shows. Devices for entertainment parks. You name it, he does it. Big bucks.”
Lorie looked up as Jeff came into the room, his tired face now as clean as hers. “Is he honest?” he asked Randy.
Randy made a rocking motion with his hand, palm down. “He’s involved in a lot of lawsuits. Very pushy guy. Doesn’t make him crooked though. I’ve met him and I’m inclined to like him. He lives in Marietta and recently he’s been calling us claiming someone’s been following him, likely trying to do him harm.”
Lorie glanced at Carol and met her startled expression.
“Are they?” Phil Barnett asked.
“Don’t know. We can’t quite get a handle on it.”
“What happened to Jon Randolph’s original lawyer, Mike Neil?” Lorie was suddenly very curious. Jeff held a chair for her and then seated himself beside her, reaching for her hand under the table and giving it a quick squeeze.
“He had a heart attack at the wheel of his car,” Sue said as she handed a mug of fragrant steaming coffee to Jeff and another to Lorie. “A couple of years ago.”
“Was he autopsied?” Lorie asked.
“I don’t know. Mike was known to have heart problems.”
Randy Ross looked at Lorie. “It wouldn’t hurt to check that out,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ll take care of that.”
“Any other witnesses?”
“Don’t need but two. But Mike’s secretary signed it. Louella Simmons.” Sid checked the signature page. “She retired when he died. I think she left town. Sue, do you know where she went?”
“Not a clue. We can ask around, though. Someone might know.”
“Okay, folks,” the doctor finally said, “It’s getting late and a few of us need sleep. Do you all want to stay here?”
“No,” Sid said, looking up. “We have to get back. The memorial service is tomorrow morning and we both have to be at the church early. You will be there … ?”
“Of course,” Carol said. “If you need any help at all … ”
“What’s the next step?” the doctor asked.
“I guess we’ll have to tell Lawyer Purdy we found a copy of the will,” Sid said, “and have him make an appointment with the judge. But not until after the funeral.”
“Don’t tell him where we got it,” his wife said fiercely.
“Of course not! If they ask, we’ll say it was under stuff in the pharmacy lockbox at the bank. What more do we need to say?”
“What are the provisions?” Carol wondered.
“Just what we knew already,” Sid answered. “Some specific bequests, notably for Rolf Maratti. Jon left us something, too. But generally, a lot of funding for Historic Randolph City. I can see why some people are so worried. Jon gave personal loans to a lot of businessmen to upgrade their stores. From what I’ve seen so far, Jon was forgiving most of those loans on his death. I know more than a couple of people who are worried sick that Maratti will foreclose on them if they miss a payment or two. Jon would never have done that.”
“Nothing in there for a stray grandchild?” his little wife asked.
“I don’t see anything here. But it’s a long document and maybe as I go through it I’ll see something relevant. I want to look at everything else in this box, too.”
“Sorry, Jeff,” Sue said. She put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I really thought we’d find the letter Mr. Jon talked about at the end.”
He smiled at her. “We may find it yet.”
It was nearing midnight when the Baileys left, taking Randy Ross with them. Lorie was beginning to sag with fatigue.
“Get to bed, honey,” Carol said. “Your eyes look terrible.” She thought a bit and said hastily, “Tired, I mean. Tired.”
“Thanks a lot, auntie!” She grinned and gave Carol a hug and a kiss. With a warm hug for Phil and a quick glance at Jeff, who was watching her out of the corner of his eye, she dragged herself up the stairs and into the bathroom, intending to make full use of the claw foot tub.
She poured something from a bottle into the rushing water and when she lowered herself into its warmth, fragrance erupted around her. It was wonderful. She leaned back, luxuriating, but contemplative. Twenty minutes later, mostly dry, she crawled under the covers of her guestroom bed and sank into softness.
She didn’t know when he came into her bed, but he smelled fresh and masculine and he held her in his arms and kissed her quite thoroughly and then lay beside her with his arms still around her as she fell back into deep renewing sleep. He was gone when she woke in the morning and it was almost as if it had been only a dream.