“We have solid intelligence Eva Battaglia is being targeted by the Morcos family,” Ross Carpenter said, as soon as the sheriff’s office door closed.
Deputy Carson Morris glanced from Carpenter to the sheriff, wondering why he’d been invited to this private meeting.
“Morcos?” Sheriff Cochran’s chair squeaked as he leaned back.
“They’re international developers with sidelines in black market weapons and money laundering.”
“What’s their concern with Eva?”
Ross rubbed his forehead. “Years ago she worked a hostage rescue mission involving the owner’s son and it didn’t go as planned. We’re tracking down those details. I’m hoping there’s some place here in the court house where I can set up a temporary office for RC Investigations. That’s safer than having her working alone in Columbia. It’s not permanent. Just until we get this settled.”
“There’s office space up on the third floor,” Sheriff Cochran said. “Let’s go take a look.”
Ross examined the area and paced the entire hallway, noting the elevator, main stairs, other offices, and fire stairs. “This can work.”
Deputy Morris listened while Ross and the sheriff discussed Eva’s schedule and responsibilities and managed to keep a straight face when Ross volunteered Eva’s IT expertise to seal the deal.
“One last thing,” Carpenter said. “I’d like someone assigned to Eva full time.”
The sheriff groaned. “You know I don’t have the manpower for that.”
“Preferably Deputy Morris.”
“She likes you,” Carpenter said. “That’s not easy to discern with Eva, I’ll grant you that.”
Carson held his peace, baffled by the statement. The woman was as prickly as a porcupine. From what he’d seen, getting shot last month had wounded her pride more than anything else.
“What do you expect out of him?”
“I expect you to treat this like undercover work, but you just have to be yourself. I need you to make sure she gets to and from work safely by either direct or indirect observation. If Rick or I hover, she’ll bust us for it. And I expect you to inform me of any threats or suspicious contact.”
He understood what might qualify as a threat, but suspicious contact? “Like what?”
“Morris, you were born and raised here in Haleswood,” Carpenter said. “You’ll recognize any strangers snooping around here, or at her room at the motel.”
“True,” the sheriff admitted. “But undercover is a tough thing to pull off in this town.”
Ross grinned and clapped Carson on the shoulder. “You’ll come up with something. It’s not long term, I promise.”
Carson glanced from one man to the other. He’d gone to high school with Ross. The sheriff had lived in the area all his life. All three of them knew there were no secrets in Haleswood. Undercover would be a unique challenge.
“It’s not a typical assignment, that’s for sure, deputy,” Sheriff Cochran said. “But seeing as you’re single, you’re probably the person best suited to keep an eye on her without causing more problems.”
“Stay close, be friendly,” Carpenter said. “I’ll let you know the minute we have the threat contained.”
Eva Battaglia jerked in her chair, her computer search forgotten as she reached for her sidearm and braced for an attack. Her heart lurched out of rhythm when her fingers felt soft denim instead of the pebbled grip of a pistol in the smooth leather of a holster.
Another moment, another ragged breath and she recognized her error. Not gunfire, just the stupid stairwell door at the end of the hallway. Why maintenance could oil the hinges and not fix the timing on the self-closing mechanism was beyond her.
She made a mental note to get back to the firing range as soon as possible. The scared rabbit reactions had to stop.
Gently rubbing away the persistent ache in her shoulder, she flexed her fingers over her keyboard and resumed her background check on a potential client.
She needed a case she could sink her teeth into. Her boss, Ross Carpenter, was borderline paranoid since getting duped by a client and nearly getting a few people killed last month. She fully supported his vigilance, considering the dup-er had gotten the drop on her, used her as bait, and eventually put a hole in her shoulder while trying to make his escape.
She did not, however, support her boss’ decision to tuck her away in this little corner of nowhere running background searches and looking pretty.
Looking pretty damn annoyed.
Haleswood, South Carolina was a fine town. If you liked a friendly place that didn’t push the needle much beyond sedate on the excitement scale. She even understood the basic logic of having an RC Investigations satellite office here, since Ross was finally living in the gorgeous home he’d built just outside of town a few years back.
The only consolation was being tucked away in an office inside the court house. It was small, and she knew her perspective was warped, but staying close to even the minimal activity of the sheriff’s office took some of the sting out of being stuck here on the sidelines.
She wanted a real case. Her own case. Something more involved than the typical adultery and divorce nonsense. She knew she was ready, but her boss – in another fit of paranoia and overprotectiveness – disagreed.
Her arm had healed just fine. Mostly. True, she still couldn’t quite hold her weapon steady enough to fire accurately. She glanced at the calendar. A month already. Hadn’t she carried her own plate at the Haleswood Thanksgiving feast? Yet, that stunning physical performance wasn’t enough to convince Ross. She’d given him a note from the doctor in Columbia, but he’d only spouted nonsense about how the team needed her superior IT and tech support skills.
As if she didn’t know her capabilities.
They both knew she could run the RC Investigations office from her laptop in any location sporting a decent Internet connection. But the guys had been having all the fun lately. In more ways than one.
Both Ross and Rick, men she’d served with in the Army, had not only solved recent RCI cases, they’d found their soul mates in the process. The thought made her antsy. She was genuinely happy for them both and already considered the women they’d chosen as friends, but it seemed so…
Out of reach, she decided on a heavy sigh.
Love was everywhere in Haleswood these past weeks. So much so, she was sure there was something in the water, except Rick had been in Virginia when he’d fallen for Nicole.
Something in the jet stream? She clicked away to another window before she could do a search on weather patterns. High pressure systems didn’t carry love viruses and the last thing she needed was one more man in her life.
Aggravated and restless, she pushed back from the desk and turned up the volume on the ever-quiet emergency scanner. Staring out the wide window onto Main Street, she watched people going about their day. Even from here, she could recognize a few of them.
“Any minute now we’ll have ourselves a full blown jay-walking epidemic.”
“That would be chaos.”
She whirled around; irritated all over again that someone could sneak up on her. Maybe Ross was right about her not being ready for something more intense. “Deputy Morris.”
He dipped his chin. “Eva.” Was he laughing at her?
Of all the people in the building, why did Sheriff Cochran always send this man to beg favors? “What do you need?” she managed to close her mouth before adding ‘now’.
“Mrs. Jackson’s computer is locked up.”
“Can’t have that.” She rolled her eyes as she crossed back to her desk to secure her computer. This kind of thing happened often enough she suspected Ross had negotiated her tech skills for a discount on the rent for the office space.
“It would delay our response to a jay-walking emergency.”
Eva laughed. She couldn’t help it. Which only emphasized why she didn’t care for Deputy Morris. His friendliness was sneakier than most in this town. At first glance he was a quiet, normal guy full of manners she was learning were an expected sort of local chivalry. The thoughtful details like holding a door she considered outdated, but Haleswood residents classified that kind of thing as required. And every so often he’d toss out a zinger or self-deprecating comment that made her smile or laugh. She reminded herself it was nice. He was nice.
“Do you do that with everyone?”
He shrugged a shoulder, but as a trained observer, she already knew the answer was no – at least as far as everyone at work. She hadn’t found a good reason to investigate his home life yet.
That kind of thinking only proved her overwhelming boredom. Unhappy with herself and her thoughts, she motioned him out of the office and locked up behind them.
“You take security pretty seriously.”
“Habit. It’s been my job for a long time.” And just because she was learning to be friendly within the context of Haleswood and the personnel around the court house didn’t mean she was going stupid. RCI clients expected – and received – the utmost discretion.
This could be a diversion, a ruse to allow someone else to break into the office and snoop around. The scenario was extremely unlikely. But unlikely didn’t equal impossible.
Shaking off her random conspiracy theories, she stepped through the stairwell door he’d opened for her. “Any reason for strangers to be in town?”
He smiled when he said it and she felt her lips curve in reply. “Yeah, besides me.” Whether he meant she was the only stranger in Haleswood or she was something to draw strangers in was a question she didn’t want answered.
She was ready for the loud door this time and minimized her reaction to a small twitch.
Deputy Morris didn’t seem to notice the slamming door or her reaction to it. “We’ll have more visitors come through town to visit family for Christmas.” They rounded the landing. “But we rarely have any trouble out of them.”
“Family.” She’d intended to see her own family for the holidays. Then she’d been shot and traveling to New York just so her mother could fuss over her in person didn’t sound like fun for anyone. “Wouldn’t that mean they aren’t really strangers?”
“Suppose you’re right,” Deputy Morris said with a half-smile that caused a strange flutter in her belly.
It had to be the charming southern accent getting to her. She should be immune by now, surrounded by it day in and day out.
She’d met plenty of dialects and voice patterns during her life. At home in New York, in the Army, and now here. What was it about Morris’ voice that drew her in and made her want to melt? “Did you ever want to get away?”
She nodded. Was it Haleswood protocol to send his mother a note that he was batting a thousand in proper manners?
“I left for school for a while,” he said, opening the sheriff’s office door for her.
“Right.” Eva knew that already. And more. Too much free time meant she’d done rudimentary research on everyone who worked in the building, down to the two women who cleaned the place two nights a week.
Deputy Morris had spent two years in college on a basketball scholarship before coming home to help when his father was diagnosed with cancer. Of course, she could have spent a few hours at the Midnight Rooster coffee house and probably heard more details from the locals, but people usually put their own spin on information when they shared it. Eva had been trained to develop independent opinions about facts rather than simply absorb someone else’s perspective.
And, as Deputy Morris pointed out, she was still considered a stranger around here which meant most of the locals either shared too much or too little when they talked with her.
“Hi, Mrs. Jackson,” she said with a smile. “What’s the trouble?”
“Hello, dear. It must be a virus. The screen keeps going black.”
Eva leaned closer, so she wouldn’t be overheard. “Bet that’s hell on your solitaire games.”
Mrs. Jackson arched her penciled brows over her festive red and green cheaters. “You have no idea. But this morning I’m actually doing some undercover research.”
“Really?” Eva leaned back. “Do you need help?”
“I’m supposed to be helping.” The older woman glanced around. “Helping Santa Claus that is. What I need is for this monitor to stay alive long enough for me to compare prices and memory options on PlayStation consoles. Unless you have a recommendation.”
“I can make some suggestions, but first let me figure this out. Any other issues with the system?”
“No. It makes all the right sounds when I turn it on and off and it works just fine when I can see what I’m doing.” She waved a hand at the dark screen. “The control-alt-delete does nothing.”
“All right. I’ll take a look.”
“Be my guest.” Mrs. Jackson pushed back from the desk. “I’ll just get another coffee.”
Eva wasn’t sure caffeine was the best idea, but she wasn’t about to say so. Taking a seat, she started troubleshooting. By the time Mrs. Jackson could return, mug of steaming coffee in one hand and a slice of Danish in the other, Eva had figured out it was simply a matter of a loose cable.
She tightened the connections and explained what happened to Mrs. Jackson. As the older woman showered her with praise, Eva wrote a note about what to look for and where to shop for the best deals on gaming consoles.
After a brief chat with the older woman, she prepared to leave, only to find Deputy Morris ready and waiting to escort her back upstairs.
When they were in the stairwell, she stopped on the first step and turned to face him. With the help of the riser, she was almost at eye level with the former basketball star of Haleswood High. “Am I under some sort of court house watch?”
He frowned. “Of course not.”
“Good.” She gave him a little finger wave. “Then you can go on about your business. I’m perfectly capable of handling a couple of doors all by myself.”
She turned and headed up the stairs before he could reply, but caught the sound of his boots behind her and paused again. “What part of I’m capable wasn’t clear, Deputy?”
“The part where you leave before I can ask you out.”
Slowly, more than a little surprised, she twisted to face him once more, leaning against the hand rail. “I beg your pardon?”
A wry grin tipped up the corner of his mouth. “You heard me. And call me Carson.”
“I thought everyone called you J.C. or Deputy.”
“You’re not everyone.”
Well, they agreed on that. She couldn’t recall her last date. There must have been one on her last visit home before she’d joined Ross’ investigation team. Her aunts were always trying to set her up with a ‘nice young man’. The problem was she found nice young men boring.
She didn’t have a bad boy complex. Having met plenty of those types, they didn’t hold much appeal either. She wanted a man who shared a few of her interests and wasn’t intimidated by her career or associates – past or present. She wanted –
“Do you plan to give me an answer?”
“Not before I know what you have in mind,” she shot back.
“How about I tell you on the way to your office?”
“Fine.” She figured he’d invite her to a movie at the one screen theater a couple of blocks away followed by pizza and a beer at O’Malley’s. Not bad, just predictable.
His long legs made quick work of the two steps between them. “There’s a police range down on highway 521. Have you ever shot a .44 magnum?”
“Please,” she said dismissively. But it had been a long time since she’d held that kind of firepower in her hands. Unfortunately, she knew her shoulder wasn’t ready for it.
“But you’re interested.”
How did he know that? “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”
“Why don’t you tell me what you’d like to fire out there and I’ll see what I can do to make it happen.”
Life in a small town sure hadn’t limited his ability to read women. He’d pegged her in one when most men underestimated her on a variety of levels.
“Fine. A few rounds with an AT-4 rocket launcher would be fun.”
He huffed a short sigh as they reached the landing and he opened the door. “That’s a pretty unique way to say no.”
She looked up at him as she passed. “Who’s saying no?” And when had she decided to start flirting with Deputy Morris? Carson. “I’d enjoy some target practice with whatever you want to shoot.”
His eyebrows arched. “Saturday then? I’ll pick you up at ten.”
“If that works.”
BANG! The door slammed behind them, but this time the shock that followed was in front of her.
A massive man barreled out of her office, his hand gun trained on them.
Deputy Morris stepped in front of her and drew his service revolver in a smooth motion she might have admired at a different time.
“Stand down,” she ordered, darting out to stand between the two men. “It was only the door.” As both weapons slowly lowered toward the floor, she raced forward, leaping into the open arms of the newcomer.
“Bart!” She punched his shoulder as he set her back on her feet. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“He was in your office, ma’am,” Deputy Morris said, stepping forward and nodding at the open door.
“Do not ma’am me.” It was one southern tradition she did not find the least bit charming. “Karl Bartholomew, Deputy Morris. We’re all friends here boys. Holster those weapons.”
When they complied, she stood beside Bart to reassure the deputy. “We worked together for years. I’m fine, Deputy- Carson,” she corrected when he glared at her.
“Concealed weapons aren’t allowed in the building.”
“What’s concealed?” Bart growled, patting the holster on his hip.
She stepped between them again, immediately concerned by Bart’s uncharacteristic edginess. Nudging her friend toward the office required more force than she expected. “Get in there,” she snapped.
He muttered under his breath, but he moved at last.
“I’ve got this,” she assured Morris.
After another long look over her shoulder, he turned away.
“Could you take the elevator? Please?”
Doing a fine imitation of Bart’s muttering, Carson reversed direction.
As Eva closed the office door, she felt an unexpected amount of regret that her Saturday invitation had probably been revoked.
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