“Is it supposed to do that?” The man in the pearl gray suit clasped his hands behind his back and peered at Aletheia’s espresso machine, from which steam rose ominously.
“Ah, we call that our diva. Temperamental, but a great performer.” Spin. Wasn’t that the word? Aletheia Cooper wondered if the man in the Italian suit and charcoal silk tie was going to be the answer to her prayers, after all. Twenty minutes ago, he’d walked into her little café in Deer Creek all hard-edged and professional, looking like a man who was interested in making a deal. She’d latched onto him like a limpet to a rock. He was the first serious buyer to show up in the four weeks since she’d put Aletheia’s Asylum, her pride and joy, on the market.
She’d guessed that with his European tailoring and the icy expression in his whiskey-colored eyes, Felix Roman was going to be a tough customer. He probably hadn’t expected Deer Creek to be so rural. Aletheia had felt determined to prove that class and sophistication weren’t restricted to the big cities. Just because she’d never finished college and had only spent two-and-a-half years of her life outside the town limits didn’t mean she was a complete hick.
But everything had gone wrong during her enthusiastic sales pitch. Wanting to make sure her potential fish didn’t cut line, Aletheia had drawn him in toward the back of the store. There they’d hit a barrier of boxes from the napkin supply company. Aletheia’s part-timer, Patty, apparently hadn’t had time to shelve them.
Roman hadn’t said a word, but Aletheia could tell from his cool, impassive expression that he’d seen the space as cramped and inadequate.
Then, as they’d walked back toward the bar area, Brad had passed by in full tattoo and pierced jewelry regalia, with a whiff of interesting herbs to complete the picture.
Coughing, Aletheia had said, “We think of ourselves as universalists.”
Roman’s eyebrows had lifted.
And now this.
With a practiced wrench of one of the machine’s many knobs, Brad managed to slow the stream of smoke.
Roman gazed at the calming machine meditatively.
By this time, Aletheia wasn’t sure if it was more important to save the sale or simply preserve her pride.
“The important thing is over here,” she claimed, gently turning her potential buyer from the malfunctioning espresso machine to look out toward the crowded customer area. “A restful oasis in the mountain town of Deer Creek, serving a healthy local population and a constant stream of tourists and skiers on their way from Los Angeles and San Bernardino up to Big Bear. With seating for thirty, we serve eight hundred fifty customers per day.”
Roman looked out over the room of soft reds and browns. Original paintings hung on the walls ‑‑ this month Aletheia was showing a local impressionist artist. Antique tea pots and sprays of dried flowers completed the picture of a comfortable, eccentrically cultured living room. The people filling the padded seats and sprawled on the afghan-covered sofa were as much friends here as customers.
Could Felix Roman see that? Could he understand this place was as much lifestyle as business investment?
For a moment Aletheia thought he did. His gaze seemed to change, warming infinitesimally. The blunt edges of his not-quite-handsome face softened a miniscule amount.
But as if on cue to complete the ruination of her sales pitch, Jim Blodger swaggered in through the glass front door. Both his smile and the top of his high bald head looked oily. Gangly and loud, he seemed to fill the room.
“Thirty-eight days,” he called from the door to Aletheia behind the counter. “Thirty-eight days, and you and your crazy relatives are out of Deer Creek.”
While seething inside, Aletheia threw on her Patient Proprietor smile. “Yes, thank you, Jim. I am well aware of the time table.” She took Roman by the elbow and tried to steer him back to her office area. Something told Aletheia that his knowledge of her desperate financial situation would not be advantageous to her in negotiating the sale price of the café.
“I’m planning to buy your family house, myself,” Jim boasted, coming toward them while Roman became oddly immovable. “Once I get the deed there’ll be no way you could buy it back, even if you won the state lottery.”
Aletheia tried tugging Roman now, but he wasn’t budging. He stared without expression at Jim Blodger. Drinking up every negotiable point, Aletheia feared.
“I’ll boot you all outta this town the minute the deed is in my hand,” Blodger went on, his smile twisting gleefully. “Your relatives will go to the various nuthouses where they all belong.”
Aletheia’s back stiffened. Unfortunately, Blodger wasn’t exaggerating. If she lost the house, various government agencies would descend on her relatives, demanding they be found ‘adequate’ placement. The people who depended on her would find themselves institutionalized, or worse.
The years she’d spent holed away here in Deer Creek would come to nothing.
Deliberately relaxing her tensed muscles, Aletheia grabbed back her Proprietor smile. “Did you want something to drink, Jim? That is the reason most people come into my establishment, to order something.”
Blodger scoffed. “I wouldn’t touch your swill.”
Despite her grand effort to remain calm, Aletheia lost it then. The years she’d spent researching the making of coffee, finding the best beans, learning the best techniques‑‑ Swill!
To her astonishment, Felix Roman spoke up before she had a chance to sail across the counter. “Excuse me, sir.” He had a voice like a deep Italian roast, low and rough, yet smooth. Its subtle predatory quality, however, went way beyond Italian roast.
With a frown, Jim Blodger blinked at him.
Roman pulled a business card from an inside jacket pocket. “Felix Roman,” he said, “with Morrison World Security Consultants.” He handed the card Blodger’s way.
Jim took the card and glanced from it to Felix Roman.
All Roman did was stand there and look at Blodger, but quiet power filled the space around him. It was the kind of space that might surround a good-sized wolf. Aletheia could hear the unspoken threat, empty as she knew it to be. Roman was making Blodger believe that he supplied security services for her.
And that Blodger had stepped over the line.
“All right, all right, I get the hint.” His face reddening now, Blodger backed up. “You don’t want me in your precious little café, but that doesn’t change the facts.” Blodger narrowed his eyes and pointed at Aletheia.
Roman, beside her, seemed to grow. With bared fangs.
Blodger hastily lowered his threatening finger. Licking his lips and backing away, he repeated, “Thirty-eight days,” before hurrying out the front door.
Everyone in the room who’d looked up when Blodger had blathered in now relaxed. With swift glances toward Felix Roman, they went back to their previous activities.
As the door behind Blodger swung closed, a strange sensation hovered over Aletheia. Felix Roman had gotten rid of Blodger. He’d…championed her.
No one had ever done that for her.
A humming awareness of Roman, an awareness that had been buzzing under the surface since he’d walked through her door, splashed into the open.
Roman turned to look at her. Aletheia felt caught between apprehension and attraction, as if she were trapped in a cage with a handsome, but potentially dangerous, wild animal.
Slowly, because the awareness thing buzzed so loudly in her brain, the awful truth dawned on Aletheia. Morrison World Security? She nearly moaned. “You aren’t looking to buy my café, are you, Mr. Roman?”
Gazing at her with his cool, calm eyes, Roman reached again toward his inside jacket pocket. “You didn’t give me a chance to explain before.” He handed her another business card. It was pearl gray, like his suit, with an elegant slash of a logo. “And you seemed so eager to show me the place. But no, I’m afraid I’m not planning to buy a café.”
Aletheia took his card and blinked a few times, feeling more than a little foolish. At least she hadn’t counted on making the sale.
“Which is not to say,” Felix went on in his deep, smooth-rough voice, “that there isn’t another matter on which I would like to do business.” He paused. “To our mutual benefit.”
Really? She gave him a dubious look. “I’m not about to hire a security company. As you’ve no doubt figured out, I’m strapped for cash.”
“Perhaps I can help you with that.” Roman’s dark lashes lowered. “You may have another commodity I’d like to purchase.”
A strange shiver went through Aletheia. She was sure he didn’t mean that the way it sounded if you had a nasty imagination, but neither was he talking about the café. This was something…unexpected.
She frowned, wondering what she could possibly own that some guy in a two-thousand dollar suit could want. The answer was: nothing. The guy had to be mistaken. Or perhaps he thought she was somebody else, a different Aletheia Cooper, one who lived in a far more fascinating and adventurous world than her own.
For a second, one ridiculous instant, she wished desperately she could be that Aletheia Cooper, unencumbered, daring, exciting…
Aletheia’s moment of insanity ended with a buzz from the cell phone clipped to the waistband of her black pants. She looked down to see the house number, followed by a 911. “Oh, God,” she muttered, unclipping the phone. Worried about the alarm signal, she asked, “What now?”
Aletheia’s cousin Parker barked from the phone. “It’s Aunt Rosa. She’s on the roof.”
“She’s where? Never mind. On my way.” Pressing off the phone, Aletheia glanced up at Felix Roman. His eyes were alert on her, watching carefully.
Aletheia paused as another wave of awareness passed over her. She wished she’d had a chance to find out who he really was and what he’d actually wanted from that other Aletheia Cooper. Instead she had to run off, and would probably never see Felix Roman again.
The disappointment she felt was surprising in its intensity. Aletheia stared at Roman for way too long, maybe half a second, before her obligations rushed back like a freight train. Aunt Rosa was on the roof. Besides, Aletheia didn’t, herself, own anything Felix Roman wanted to buy, at least not for the price she needed: fifty thousand dollars.
“There’s an emergency at home,” she told him. “I have to go.”
She saw his gaze sharpen as she whirled toward Brad.
“Call Patty,” Aletheia ordered her barista. “See if she can back you up. Don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“Will do,” Brad answered.
Urgent now, Aletheia jerked at the tie of her black apron as she turned toward the rear of the store. Her car was parked in the alley.
Unbelievably, she heard Felix Roman say, “I’ll follow you.”
“What?!” Aletheia whirled back again, but Roman was already out her front door. “What?” she asked again, but she spoke to thin air. He was fast disappearing from view out the front window.
Oh, it didn’t matter, Aletheia told herself, turning and running now toward the back door. No way could the man get to his car in time, then track her up the series of winding mountain roads. But she felt decidedly off-balance as she climbed into her trusty Jeep.
If anyone could manage it, she had a feeling it would be Felix Roman.
Though she had no idea why he’d want to.
Felix had little trouble following his quarry up the winding mountain roads. When he was deeply focused on an objective, complications became simple, obstacles dropped away, opponents fell. He was deeply focused, all right.
He would find Benjamin Cooper.
Inside the hushed elegance of his rented car, Felix’s eyes narrowed at the thought of Cooper, the saboteur. Mistakes did not happen on Felix’s watch. Clients did not lose property. Government secrets did not go missing.
Emotions bubbled dangerously close to the surface: anger, shame, frustration. Turning the car easily over the steeply winding road, Felix ruthlessly shoved the feelings down. Emotions clouded judgment and threatened to rouse the dark side of his nature.
Felix never wanted that. Today less than usual. He needed to restore the good name of Morrison World Security, which was pretty much the same as restoring the good name of Felix Roman. After working his way up the ladder, Felix had bought the security consulting company from old man Morrison five years ago. He’d turned it into a top-notch concern, one that specialized in protecting the difficult and unusual. It was a company that, up until now, had held an exemplary record.
Felix’s jaw set. He would get that record back. If that meant nabbing Dr. Cooper so the guy could fix what he’d wrecked, so be it. Felix would nab him.
He’d given his word to protect the property Cooper had destroyed ‑‑ and Felix always kept his word. Honesty and integrity were qualities he’d struggled long and hard to attain. The world would never know how much like his father he actually was, underneath.
Up ahead, Aletheia’s aged Jeep turned off the narrow road and jounced past a broken wooden gate. Felix gripped the wheel of the Lexus and followed after her.
A tiny smile edged his mouth. She was like a kitten compared to his wolf. Soft, defenseless…harmless. He could eat four of her type for breakfast.
Curiosity had prompted him to let her go through her sales pitch for the café. It was also an opportunity to learn more about her situation. But before Felix had been able to learn anything beyond the strange allure of Aletheia’s hands ‑‑ long, capable hands that moved energetically as she spoke ‑‑ that local yokel had barged in.
One side of Felix’s tiny smile grew. It had been a pleasure to send the fellow on his way. Indeed. When it came to a person getting what he wanted from Aletheia Cooper, Felix had first dibs.
Branches of overgrown eucalyptus towered overhead. Dusty undergrowth scratched at the car. Felix caught a glimpse of a roofline through the trees, something tall with broken jigsaw trim at the eaves.
Felix’s half-smile moved to both sides of his mouth. There was clear financial distress here, an echo of the desperation behind Aletheia’s sales pitch. Such could easily be turned to his advantage. If Aletheia knew where Benjamin Cooper was, Felix could make it worth her while to tell him.
The trees parted and the house came fully into view. It was a grand old Victorian in dire need of a paint job. As Felix drew up in an open, graveled area, he saw a group of people gathered on some matted grass before the house. They were all looking upward. His motion checked as he saw what they were looking at.
High on the ridge of a gable overlooking the lawn sat a female figure in a deck chair. She held a glass in one hand and a long cigarette holder in the other. One bony leg crossed casually over the other. A colorful umbrella perched over the ensemble. Felix wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard tropical music floating over the scene.
In the name of all that was holy ‑‑
When Aletheia had said she had a family emergency, Felix had imagined a kid with a broken arm or a flood in the basement. Something normal. This ‑‑
Just looking at the woman on the roof sent adrenaline jolting through him.
Quickly pushing that emotion down too, Felix parked the car and joined the group on the lawn.
As his leather dress shoes crunched over the dried grass, Aletheia started, then turned to shoot him a glance.
Felix received a hit from her green-gold eyes. Those eyes observed him with a disconcerting level of interest. It was the type of interest, Felix decided, one might give a wild animal in its native habitat. The notion hit him even harder than her glance had. Did she guess what he was? Could she? The idea stirred him in a deep and novel way.
Aletheia turned back to gaze at the woman on the roof, as if her perilous situation were easier to contemplate than Felix.
“I can’t believe she did it again,” muttered a young man with shaggy, dark-blond hair. Over paint-splattered jeans he wore a kitchen apron, and the manly confidence to carry off such an ensemble.
“My sister Rosa has no more sense than a pigeon,” snapped a withered old woman seated in a wheelchair. Behind her, a dark-haired girl crossed her arms over her chest in exact imitation of the old lady’s posture.
“Well, she does have delusional psychosis,” excused the man with shaggy hair.
“Huh!” said the old woman.
The dark-haired girl followed with her own, “Huh!”
“I was trying to watch her,” claimed a tall, spindly fellow with glasses perched atop his balding head. “But you know what happens when I get deep into my equations.”
A sigh escaped Aletheia. “Yes, Dad, I know.”
A middle-aged, tubby guy with thick glasses started to cry. “I’m scared, Allie.”
“Now, now. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Aletheia put her arm around the crying man. “We’ll get Aunt Rosa down. Not to worry.”
Felix’s eyes narrowed on Aletheia’s hand resting atop the older man’s shoulder. From the fellow’s mannerisms, Felix was pretty sure he was developmentally disabled.
“So,” asked Shaggy Hair, “what do you want to do?” It did not surprise Felix that the guy directed the question toward Aletheia rather than ‘Dad.’ Clearly, she was the one in charge of this madhouse.
Aletheia squinted up toward the roof. “Judging by the umbrella, she’s probably imagining she’s at the beach in Monaco again.”
“That’s got to be an improvement over the one where she thinks she’s in the Alps,” Shaggy Hair huffed. “You want to talk her inside, cuz? My soufflé is gonna be done in ten minutes.”
Aletheia turned and met eyes with Shaggy Hair. The moment told Felix neither one of them thought it was going to be that easy. Probably they didn’t want to further upset the guy who was crying.
“I’ll back you up on the second floor balcony,” Shaggy Hair told Aletheia quietly.
Felix studied the house. A gaily carved balcony sat beneath either side of the gable upon which Aunt Rosa perched. “There are two balconies where she might fall,” he pointed out.
Shaggy Hair and Aletheia turned from their contemplation of each other to stare at Felix.
He felt like staring at himself. Why had he mentioned that? This crazy situation wasn’t his problem. Nevertheless, he could feel his jaw tense in determination. An old lady was on the roof. Something had to be done ‑‑ and there was nobody else who could help that Felix could see. “I’ll take the second balcony.”
Aletheia’s mouth opened. She was obviously surprised, and very probably threatened. It was clear they were used to pulling together here, solving their problems within their own tight-knit group. Besides she seemed to suspect Felix ‑‑ or at least sense what he really was.
Too bad. Staring at her, he only grew more determined.
Meanwhile, Shaggy Hair relented. “I have no idea who you are, but you’re on.”
Sensing Shaggy Hair’s say-so wasn’t enough, Felix kept his challenging gaze on Aletheia. He hadn’t intended to take this tack with her, showing his underlying aggression, but gravity wasn’t going to wait for the dame on the roof.
Aletheia knew it, too. She surrendered with a curt nod. “Okay, you’re here. You might as well be useful.”
Hardly a gushing endorsement, but enough for the job.
“We’d better hurry,” Shaggy Hair told Felix, as they both started, jogging, toward the front porch. “Who knows what’ll happen if Aunt Rosa finishes her drink.” He huffed a laugh. “She might decide to go for a swim.”
Glancing up at the deck chair on the gable roof, Felix realized where a desire for a swim might put the old lady. “Let’s run,” he suggested.
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