A waning moon, p.13
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       A Waning Moon, p.13
 

           Bliss Addison
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  “Body parts? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe your sister is better off without you.”

  “What, then?”

  “I'll ask the questions.”

  Whit recognized he needed to shift who held this meeting. To attain that objective might be as simple as letting him think he was the one in control by telling him some of what he knew. “Shoot. I meant that metaphorically speaking. For a moment, I forgot who I was speaking to.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Oh, come on, Baleman. I saw your handiwork on Mr. Malloy. I'm happy to report he'll live.”

  “Good.”

  “What do you mean? You almost beat the life out of him.”

  “Don't believe everything you hear and see. Things are not what they seem.”

  Whit cocked a brow. “What in hell do —”

  “Shut up!”

  Whit sensed the man's anxiety. Something was taking place behind him, something that might put Whit in jeopardy. He needed to know what that was. Just as he was about to turn, Baleman said, “Someone's coming. Say nothing to anyone about my visit. Do, and your sister is dead. Understood?”

  Whit nodded, staring straight ahead.

  “I'll be in touch.”

  Birds took flight from their perches in the trees, their screams echoing eerily in the ensuing silence.

  “Having trouble sleeping?” Blossom's melodic voice said at his back.

  He turned and, appearing casual, cast a glance over her shoulder, but wherever Baleman was, Whit couldn't see him. He couldn't let on to Blossom that Mary Ellen's abductor had paid a visit. She’d want to tell Ian. Chaos could ensue and Mary Ellen could die as a result. He would never take that chance with a life.

  “Uh-huh. Can't shut off my mind. What's your excuse?”

  “Strange bed.”

  “Yes, I always thought they should be square rather than rectangular.”

  She shook her head and gave him a lopsided grin. “A lawyer with a sense of humor. Now that's a surprise.”

  Mindful that Baleman might still pose a threat to them, Whit kept a covert eye on his surroundings. Even when he smiled and watched as she drew in a deep breath of crisp air, one part of his brain absorbed the sounds of the night and sought out any change that might indicate an unwelcome trespasser.

  “Don't you love it?” She spun in a slow circle, head bent backward, hands splayed wide at her sides. “The scent of pine and spruce mingled with the ashy odor of a wood fire and the sweetness of a new snow. There’s nothing more heavenly than the outdoors after a storm.”

  Yes, he thought, there is. You. From the light of the moon, Whit saw the wall come down. Not a visible wall, of course, but one just as impenetrable. The self-imposed wall that refused entry to all strangers, or perhaps just him. Why did she fear him, or did she fear all men? She appeared comfortable with Ian. That he conceded to let Lyron check him out relieved Whit. If Ian was his competition, then he wanted to know everything about him. “Are you a skier?”

  She shook her head. “No, but I love winter. It's said those born in the winter months prefer cold to warmth. When were you born?”

  “March 6th.” He saw surprise register in her eyes, like it was a freak date that came around only every fourth year. “Bad date?”

  She shook her head, then laughed, a nervous laugh, he noticed. She was still frightened around him.

  Take it easy, Whit. Keep your voice quiet, calm. “What is it, then?”

  “We have the same birth date.” She moved the toe of her snow boot in a tight circle in the snow and looked at him.

  “Shockin’ that is, shockin.” In the event Baleman was within listening distance, Whit needed to make it appear he had no intention of telling anyone about his visit.

  “Walk with me.” He took a chance and held out his hand, hoping she would take it but knowing she wouldn't. “I know where all the bear traps, stake pits and snares are.”

  She stared at his hand, looked over her shoulder at the house that he knew represented relative safety to her, then back at him. He managed not to laugh when her face took on a jamboree of expressions — fright, curiosity, excitement. There was something else there, too. What was it? Intrigue? Interest? Usually, he had no trouble reading people. Not so with her.

  “You're not serious,” she said wide-eyed.

  He couldn't help himself. He threw back his head and laughed. “No.” He slid his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “I won't bite.”

  “Said the fish to the bait.”

  He chuckled, thinking he was the one in danger. How could she not perceive that his insides turned to jelly in her presence? “Did you see anyone just now when you walked along the path?” He kept his voice low and made the question sound casual, though considering the late hour and the weather conditions it was anything but.

  She shook her head. “Were you expecting someone?”

  “I thought I heard something earlier.” The lie came easily. When for the greater good, lies sometimes had a way of doing that.

  She nodded. “I came across some deer tracks near the house.”

  “Maybe that's what I heard.”

  They stood as they were — assessing, admiring, appraising — each other and as much as Whit wanted the moment to never end, he had no choice. Baleman proved himself to be someone who could come and go and do as he pleased and not get caught. He would not knowingly place Blossom in danger.

  He noticed her shivering despite the warmth of her sheep's wool jacket.

  “The temperature is dropping. Shall we turn in?” Whit had decisions to make, not the least of which was whether to tell Lyron about Baleman's visit.

  Chapter Eighteen

  In the darkness of her second-story bedroom at the rear of Whit's house, Blossom stretched out on the bed and stared at the ceiling, marveling at the incidents that had led her here.

  The sound of a door closing and the crunch of footsteps over frozen ground had her hopping from bed and striding to the window. Through the gossamer curtain, she watched as Whit shone a flashlight on boot prints in the snow, leading away from the area where they had stood moments ago.

  Bajaysus but the man was odd.

  When he turned and walked through a growth of small trees, she thought, nice buns. Long, muscular legs, too. She couldn't see why Ian found him handsome, though.

  She admired the way he moved — confident, forceful, purposeful, — and seemingly without effort, or perhaps he sensed her watching and performed for her benefit. As though clairvoyant, he turned and looked directly where she stood.

  Surprised, she jerked to the side, out of his line of sight. Her heart pounded, then logic overcame foolishness. What was she thinking? He couldn't see her. Not through floral filmy curtains and the room in darkness. She chewed on a thumbnail and tentatively pitched her head around the window frame and peered into the back yard, searching the area frantically when she didn't find him. “Where did you disappear to, Mr. Hawkes?”

  “Do you always talk to yourself?”

  She recognized the voice and smiled. “When I need to talk to someone intelligent, I do.”

  Ian switched on the lights and the room came to life beneath the soft glow of table and floor lamps.

  “What did you learn about our generous benefactor?” he asked.

  That he has a sense of humor; that his eyes light up when he speaks of things he likes; that he has a dimple near his right eye; that he enjoys teasing. If circumstances were different, she felt sure she could fall in love with him. Maybe she already was. A shiver swept her body. Her clothes felt grimy against her skin. She looked at Ian who looked as fresh and polished as the boots of a cadet and as tempting to her as a chocolate fondue.

  A sudden chill overcame her and she shivered.

  “Is something the matter?”

  “Something gave me the creepie-crawlies. “Whit, probably. After he deposited me back in the house, he went outside again.” She pointed to the window. “Take a look.” She watched as Ian looked
through the curtain into the yard and stared for a moment. When he turned away from the window, she noticed him eyeing her oddly.

  “What?”

  He shook his head. “Nothing.”

  “For the record, I don't like doing your bidding. If you want to pump someone for information, do it yourself from now on.”

  He shoved his hands in his pockets, and ambled to her, stopping a foot away. “I couldn't very well be in two places at the one time.” He peered around the room. “Nice digs.”

  She looked at the rose-colored walls, the white cornice moldings, the paintings, the antique armoire, the brocade love seat, the velvet cushions, the brass urns and the ferns. In ordinary circumstances, she would have appreciated her surroundings.

  He plopped onto the four-poster bed and bounced in place. The springs squeaked beneath his weight and the floor creaked from the movement. “I got the blue room.” He grinned.

  “Stop that,” she said, feeling like a mother admonishing a child. “Someone will think I'm doing gymnastics or swinging from the chandelier.”

  “If you ask me, the place could stand spiffing up.” He reached up and brushed a curl from her eye. “You bring this old mausoleum to life.”

  “Have you forgotten why we're here?” Strange, but the time since Ian came into her life had been the most enjoyable. Her birthday fast approached, the day where, as the Curse decreed, she would take her life, yet her imminent demise didn't frighten her, not in the least, certainly not like it had before. Was this how her foremothers had felt? Were they resigned to the terms of the Curse and considered their suicide inevitable?

  “Nope. I did a little reconnaissance while you were entertaining Mr. Lawyer-Smarty-Pants in the bushes.”

  “And?” Mentally, she compared this give-and-tell with pulling teeth from a bear and figured Ian won the competition hands down, but she wouldn't let him sidetrack her with clever remarks.

  “And nothing. He has no family tree I could find.”

  “Maybe we should drop the name Higginbotham into conversation.”

  “It might work.” Ian jutted his chin and massaged his jaw.

  She admired his slender fingers and well-manicured nails. Suddenly, the temperature in the room warmed five degrees. “Do you find it hot in here?”

  “No,” he said distractedly.

  “What are you thinking about?” She ran her finger inside the collar of her sweater from side to side.

  “Nothing.”

  A gust of wind with the density of a bowling ball rammed the house, sending shivers of cold through her. She edged closer to Ian.

  “What's the matter now?”

  She shook off the chill. “Nothing."

  “You didn't answer my question, Blossom. Did you learn anything from Whit?”

  She noticed Ian's authoritative manner. All of a sudden, he was totally business.

  “He seemed agitated.”

  “Why?”

  “How would I know? Whatever the cause, he got over it fast enough, so it couldn't have been anything serious.” She watched as he crossed his arms against his chest, pulling his shirt sleeves tight against his muscular biceps. An intense heat infused her body.

  “You might have had something to do with it.”

  She frowned. “I don't know how.”

  “My God, woman, have you never looked at yourself in the mirror?”

  “Yes, of course, all the time.” She crossed her legs at the knees, and swung the top one back and forth, back and forth.

  “Whit is quite smitten with you.”

  “He's going to have to get over it because it's not reciprocated.”

  “No?” He bent and stared into her face.

  She held his look. “The man is a self-absorbed boor. Probably eccentric, too.” As Ian splayed his fingers on his thighs, she wondered how his hands would feel on her body. With her forefinger, she wiped perspiration from her upper lip.

  “If you say so.”

  “I do.” She didn't mean to spit the words and wished he’d get off the subject of Whit.

  “Okay.” He held his hands in the air, palms outward. “I believe you.”

  “Believe it.” Why did Ian insist on bringing up Whit, like she should be interested in him? The prodding grew unnerving. How many times did she need to tell him she felt nothing for Whit before Ian would believe her? “Why are you looking at me like that?”

  “And how's that?”

  “Like I'm PMS-ing. What is it with men? Just because women voice their opinion or suggest an alternative point of view, or show temper, it's,” she stopped to make air quotes, “that time of the month. God, I despise those words. I'd like to meet the man who coined the phrase and set him straight. Man, would I! Considering the week when women are pre-that-time-of-the-month’, the week during that-time-of-the-month and the week post-that-time-of-the-month, it's a wonder men bother with us at all.”

  When she sat in silence the next few minutes, Ian was wise enough to follow suit.

  Ian, apparently tired of sitting, stood and paced the floor.

  About a hundred steps later, he broke the silence.

  “We'll have to find lodging tomorrow. With the storm over and the roads passable, there'll be no excuse for us to stay.”

  “Uh-huh.”

  He captured his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed. "Do I have your attention?"

  "Of course. Why do you ask?"

  "Yesterday, you couldn't wait to get on our way, now you seem indifferent about the idea."

  "I still want to leave.”

  “Good. I think it's best anyway. You mentioned a B&B?”

  “Yes. It's not far from here.”

  “What's your take on this Lyron guy?”

  Half-heartedly, she shrugged. Why would she want to talk about the little guy when she could feast her eyes on Ian's chest? In her mind, she saw ridge after ridge of muscle, glistening, taut, bronzed skin that trembled beneath her fingers.

  Ian interrupted her reverie the beam of a flashlight shot through the panes of glass. “What the – ” He walked to the window.

  Blossom sprang from the bed and stood next to him, breathing in the sea-salt and sand scent of his after-shave. “What is it?” She inhaled deeply, closed her eyes, savored the aroma and exhaled slowly.

  He parted the curtains and peered out. “Lyron's joined Whit, and they seem to be searching for something. They look like bloodhounds on a fox.”

  She stared at the pinkness of his nail bed and at his narrow fingers holding the curtains apart. Her stomach quivered. Using the moment, she moved closer to the window on the pretense of getting a better view to the outdoors.

  He pushed the left side of the gossamer wider and let his arm fall to his side. Her breast brushed his forearm. Her skin shivered, goose bumps the size of marbles broke out on her arms.

  She couldn't resist him one more second. She slammed herself between him and the window and smashed her lips against his.

  Chapter Nineteen

  Whit followed Lyron, who blazed a trail through a foot of snow. His decision to inform Lyron of Baleman's visit worried him. Since the abduction, his body had remained in a constant state of nervous tension and dread, and his encounter tonight with Mary Ellen's captor added to it.

  What if, like Baleman had warned, she suffered because he told someone?

  How could he live with himself, then?

  He halted when Lyron came to an abrupt stop. “What is it? Did you find something?” Whit shone his flashlight in every direction over the snow.

  Lyron paid him no mind. “How long ago was he here?”

  “From the time it took me to get to the house, get you up and moving — you sleep like the dead, remember — and back out here, probably fifteen minutes.”

  Lyron grimaced, looking at the single set of boot prints leading away from them.

  “He's long gone,” he said and turned. “Let's go back inside.”

  Whit agreed. Only stupidity woul
d keep Baleman hanging around, and he didn't strike Whit as stupid. “Why don't we keep following his tracks?”

  “They lead to the road.”

  Whit followed the beam of Lyron's flashlight, puzzled by his negativity. For once, Whit questioned Lyron's expertise. “He may have dropped something along the way. If he did, it may be a clue to where he's holding Mary Ellen.”

  Lyron nodded. “We won't find it in this snow or darkness, and as far as what kind of transportation he used to get here…” He turned toward the road and cupped a hand around his ear. “Listen.”

  Whit heard the sound of a plow rumbling down the road.

  “When we came out of the house, the plow was going up the road which would —”

  “Remove the evidence of whatever mode of transportation he used to get here.”

  “What else do you hear?” Lyron asked.

  The sound of snowmobiles traveling the woods reached his ears. “If Baleman used a snowmobile, how would we distinguish his from any other?”

  Lyron looked at him strangely. “Why do you refer to him as Baleman? How do you know it was him? Did he introduce himself?”

  “No, but I called him Baleman, and he didn't object. Besides who else could it be?”

  “Oh, I don't know, Whit.” Lyron spun around. “It could have been anyone, and we know there's no such person as Anthony Baleman.”

  “True, but we don't know that he didn't use his first name.”

  He noticed Lyron's frown. “What is it?”

  “You weren't going to tell me, were you?”

  Whit hid his eyes behind a mask of disapproval and heaved a sigh when Lyron switched off the light.

  “I thought so.” Lyron scowled. “You're not being objective. And don't think you can handle the guy, Whit. Going it alone will probably get Mary Ellen killed.”

  Lyron was right. Whit didn’t know what he’d been thinking. “I'm sorry. I don't know what overcame me.”

  Lyron slapped Whit on the shoulder. “Forget it. We all have our moments. But no more hesitation. If this guy contacts you again….”

  “You'll be the first to know.” Whit watched as Lyron, seemingly satisfied with his response, turned and directed the beam of his flashlight into the trees.

  Something, perhaps intuition or premonition he would later guess, urged him to look back at his house.

  The sporadic bursts of brilliant white light shooting from Blossom's bedroom window mesmerized him, rooting him to where he stood. His breath stalled in his throat and heart quickened. When, like a kaleidoscope, the pristine color changed to blue to green to red to orange, he found his voice. “What the hell…” He reached out and flailed his hand until it came in contact with Lyron. When he saw Blossom's head cant and strike the window sash, he left Lyron standing in a cloud of snow.

 
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