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Authors: Catherine Palmer

Thread of Deceit

Praise for
CATHERINE PALMER
and her novels

“Veteran romance writer Palmer…delivers a satisfying tale of mother-daughter dynamics sprinkled with romance.”


Library Journal
on
Leaves of Hope

“Enjoyable…Faith fiction fans…will find this novel just their cup of tea.”


Publishers Weekly Religion Bookline
on
Leaves of Hope


Leaves of Hope
is a very emotional tale that’s easy to relate to. Ms. Palmer ignites soul-searching conflict and carries her readers on a remarkable journey they will long remember. This is a sharer.”


Rendezvous

“Believable characters tug at heartstrings, and God’s power to change hearts and lives is beautifully depicted.”


Romantic Times BOOKreviews
on “Christmas in My Heart”


Love’s Haven
is a glorious story that was wonderfully told…Catherine Palmer did a stand-up job of describing each scene and creating a world which no reader will want to leave.”


Cataromance Reviews

Books by Catherine Palmer

Steeple Hill Single Title

Love’s Haven

Leaves of Hope

The Heart’s Treasure

*
Thread of Deceit

Love Inspired Historical

The Briton
#1

CATHERINE
PALMER
THREAD OF DECEIT

Published by Steeple Hill Books

For the least of these

Chapter One

“‘Come, you who are blessed by the Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ For…I was naked, and you gave me clothing.”

—Jesus Christ, Matt. 25:34,36


P
aint?
You’re kidding, right?” Anamaria Burns set one hand on her hip and the other on her editor’s desk. “Carl, you hired me because my investigative reporting took a first-place award from the Texas Press Association. I moved from Brownsville to St. Louis to cover hard news for the
Post-Dispatch.
So far, you’ve asked me to write about a neighborhood beautification project, an ice cream stand, a sports arena and a parade. Oh yeah, and sewage. Now you want me to do a story on paint?”

City editor Carl Webster leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses and rubbed his temples. With budget cuts, a glaring error on the Sunday edition’s front page and three new interns to break in, his Monday-morning staff meeting hadn’t gone well. A heavy smoker, who existed on a diet of black coffee and doughnuts, he looked tired.

“Not every article can be a prizewinner, Ana,” he said. “You know that.”

“But
paint?

“Lead paint. It’s a problem here.” He took a moment to huff a breath onto each lens and rub with a white tissue. “St. Louis County just got a two-million-dollar grant—”

“You shouldn’t do that, you know,” she inserted. “Clean your glasses with a tissue. The paper fibers scratch the lenses. You should use a soft cotton cloth.”

Carl set the glasses back on his nose and scowled through them at his latest hire. “As I was saying, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded St. Louis County a two-million-dollar grant to seal or remove old lead-based paint. The county will add a half-million bucks. This is their third HUD grant, and the money always goes to owner-occupied single-family houses or to apartment buildings. So there’s your story.”

“I don’t see it. Maybe a couple of inches in the Metro section—HUD gave the grant, and now the county is going to paint houses.” She scooped up a scattered pile of press releases, tamped them on Carl’s desk and set them down again. “How is that news?”

“What draws readers to a story, Ana? Money, sex, power. And kids.” He lifted a corner of the paper stack with his thumb and riffled it like a deck of cards. “See, children are eating the paint chips that fall off the walls in these old buildings downtown. They’re breathing in dust from crumbling paint. And lead-based paint—which was used in every building constructed before 1978—can cause brain damage in children under six years of age.”

“Okay, that’s bad.”

“That’s not all.” He pushed around the papers she had just straightened until he found the one he was looking for. “‘Breathing lead dust and consuming lead paint chips,’” he read, “‘can cause nervous system and kidney damage. The affected child can exhibit learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and decreased intelligence. There may be speech, language and behavior problems, poor muscle coordination, decreased bone growth, hearing damage, headaches, weight loss—’”

“I get it, Carl. I do.” She paused a moment, chewing on the nail of her index finger. Nail-biting was her worst habit, Ana admitted, evidence of the stress in her life. In a constant quest for perfection, order and control, she had nibbled her nails down to nubs. Not even pepper-laced polish had helped.

“But the county has the money now,” she said. “They’ll fix the problem.”

“In houses and apartments.”

“I’m sure they’ve already taken care of school buildings.”

“Is that the only place kids spend time?”

She lifted her head, feeling her news antennae start to tingle. “How about day cares?”

“Small, non-home-based day cares are slipping through the cracks.”

“Churches?”

“Basement Sunday school rooms. Vacation Bible School areas.”

She thought for a moment, tapping her lower lip. “Restaurants?”

“Mostly taken care of.”

“What about after-school clubs? We had several in Brownsville. Kids of all ages showed up. If their parents couldn’t afford day care, some little ones spent the whole day there. They had basketball courts and crafts programs, that kind of thing.”

“Now you’re with me.” Carl nodded. “I’d like three or four articles, maybe a sidebar or two. And put some heart into it, Ana.”

Wrong body part, Ana thought. She had made a name for herself with her nose.

Ana Burns could sniff news a mile away. Since coming to St. Louis five months before, she had left several strong story ideas on Carl’s desk. No doubt they were still there—lost in the clutter. Instead of letting Ana follow her nose, the editor had assigned a bunch of boring, fluff pieces and then buried them in the Metro section.

She didn’t want her work to show up in Section B. She was a page-one woman. P-I, that’s where her byline belonged. The other reporters kidded her about this quest for perfection—as had her colleagues at the
Brownsville Herald.
She was used to scoffers, and she paid no attention to them.

Carl leaned across stacks of files and unopened mail to hand her a sheet of paper. “Here are the names of some places to get you going. Start with Haven—it’s a recreation center not far from here. Our publisher’s on the board of directors, so they’ll cooperate.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“Unflattering publicity. The Health Department is on their backs. Family Services, too, I imagine. Most of these small operations survive on a shoestring budget and can’t afford to fix the paint problem.”

Anticipating endless treks from one tedious interview to another, Ana shook her head. This was so far from her vision of big-city journalism she could scream. Instead of reporting breaking news, investigating political shenanigans and digging into the affairs of the city’s high and mighty, she had been reduced to covering issues a new journalist would cut her teeth on.

“Carl, can’t you give this story to one of the interns?” she asked. “Let me write something with meat on it. I heard the mayor is—”

“I’m giving the project to you, Ana. You’ve got two weeks.”

“An entire series in two weeks? But I’ve got assignments on my desk already.”

“This is life in the fast lane, Ana. You’re not in your sleepy little Texas border town anymore. Everyone on the city staff has to pull their own weight.”

“I want the fast lane,” she said hotly. “That’s why I left Brownsville. I crave excitement and challenge. But a story on lead paint doesn’t cut it.”

“Ana, if you’re unwilling to complete your assignment, I’ve got ten reporters lined up waiting to take your job.”

Carl turned away and began punching numbers into his phone. Shutting the door of his office, Ana gripped the list in her hand and tried to make herself breathe. Her sandals felt as if they’d been lined with lead as she made her way back to her desk.

Lose her job? Impossible. She would have no choice but to go home. Back to Brownsville and the house where she’d grown up. Back to her parents, whose phone calls and e-mails still were filled with grief. Their pain became her guilt, and it lay squarely on her own shoulders.

Sinking into her chair, she slid open her desk drawer and lifted out a small, porcelain-framed photograph of two little girls smiling from between their striking mother and their tall, strong father. That day at the beach had seemed so perfect. Ana and her younger sister had played in the sand, digging moats and building castles while their parents lounged beside them on red-and-yellow-striped towels.

Bending closer, she gazed into the face of the child she had been. How old? Maybe ten. An expression of calm, of outward confidence, of self-assurance on the girl’s face in the photo belied the haunted terror mirrored in the brown pools of her eyes. Ana’s sister was smiling for the camera, but she, too, had been filled with anxiety at that very moment. How frightened the two little girls had been during that year and the years that followed, how filled with confusion and despair. Helplessness filled both children even as loving arms surrounded them.

Her heart clenching, Ana slid the frame back into the drawer and set a file folder on top of it. She could not go home. Ever. Brownsville and all that had happened there was in the past. And she would do everything in her power to keep it there.

Two weeks—that was all the time she had. Two weeks to write the lead paint series, while keeping pace with the regular flow of daily assignments that landed on her desk. Fortunately, the short pieces could be handled on the phone. Determined to start on the new project without delay, she opened her purse and checked her supplies. Two notebooks, five pens, a small tape recorder, cassette tape. Cinnamon breath mints. Lipstick exactly three shades darker than her lips. Spare contact lenses and wetting solution. Cell phone. A can of pepper spray.

Feeling better, she snapped the bag shut and surveyed her desk. The assignments file lay in her top drawer. Her in-box held three letters, which she opened, skimmed and tossed into the wastebasket. Her out-box was empty, of course.

Ana always had liked order, structure, neat borders. At the University of Texas at Brownsville, she had turned in term papers early. She tried to do the same with her articles. In grade school, she kept a container of antibacterial wipes in her backpack so she could clean the top of her small desk. That habit had traveled all the way to St. Louis with her, and she never set foot out of the
Post-Dispatch
building at the end of each day without first giving her desk a good scrubbing. Clean, neat, orderly. As perfect as she could make it. Yes, that was her life.

Ana knew her first stop should be “the morgue”—the newspaper’s archives—which no doubt had a thick file on lead-based paint. But she wanted to get started with her interviews. She settled for e-mailing the newspaper’s librarian to request copies of pertinent articles.

Standing, she shouldered her purse and pushed her chair under the desk. Two sites on Carl’s contact list had addresses in the inner city. Following her editor’s suggestion, she would start at the recreation center and move on to the day care.

Avoiding the elevator, Ana headed down the windowless stairwell, her thoughts on how she could dig up enough information to fill out a series. She increased her speed, now racing down the steps, feeling the burn in her thighs, expanding her lungs to take in air. Earlier that morning she had run five miles from her apartment to the Gateway Arch and back. This was barely a skip, but the exercise filled her with confidence as she burst out into the parking garage and jogged toward her car.

By the end of this year, she planned to run her first marathon. Within five years, she had to claim a Pulitzer. But first she needed to pull three great stories off a wall of crumbling lead paint. She had two weeks. No problem.

“Please sign your name on this list, ma’am.” The teenage boy standing under a tattered green canvas awning held out a clipboard. “And write down your reason for visiting Haven.”

Despite her best intentions, Ana felt a jolt of trepidation as he took a step toward her. Tall and brawny, with deep chocolate skin and shoulder-length dreadlocks, he wore a plain white T-shirt, baggy denim shorts and new Nike high-tops with the laces hanging loose. She often saw such apparel on young men loitering near the
Post-Dispatch
building or playing basketball in the parks. Tattoos, graffiti, even the color of a baseball cap could be signs of gang affiliation. Though she had taught herself to walk the streets of downtown St. Louis without constantly looking over her shoulder, Ana knew enough to be careful.

As she handed back the clipboard, the youth smiled broadly. Amid a row of straight white teeth, a single gold one glinted in the July sun.

“Thank you, Miss Burns. My name is Raydell Watson. Welcome to Haven. You can walk through now. If you got anything metal in your bag, hand it to me.”

Masking her surprise, Ana glanced at the club’s door. A metal detector blocked the entrance. “Tape recorder?”

He nodded, and she handed him the device, stepped through into the cool building and blinked in the dim light. Laughter, balls bouncing, a referee’s shrill whistle, the smells of perspiration and popcorn assailed her.

“Good afternoon, ma’am.” A girl’s voice drifted up from the gloom. She handed Ana the tape recorder. Petite, with elaborate braids swirling around her scalp, the teen flashed a bright smile. “This is Duke. He won’t bite.”

A German shepherd padded forward from the darkness. Ana gave an involuntary gasp as the animal circled her. She went rigid, elbows high, shoulders scrunched, clutching her bag to her chest.

The girl giggled. “He sniffs for drugs, but you clean. C’mon, Duke. Heel, boy!” The dog trotted to her side and sat down, tail swishing the floor. “You gotta put on this T-shirt, Miss…um…” She glanced at the clipboard, which had somehow materialized in her hands. “Miss Burns. You got on a red blouse, and we don’t allow no gang colors at Haven. Here you go. And don’t roll up the sleeves. That’s a gang sign, too.”

Unaccustomed to taking orders from teenagers, Ana couldn’t summon the will to protest. She set down her bag, glad her khaki skirt had passed muster, and tugged the T-shirt over her blouse.

A drug-sniffing dog. A metal detector. What was going on here?

“I’ve come to see—”

“You gotta talk to Mr. Hawke or Mr. Roberts,” the girl cut in. “That’s the rule.” She spotted another teen dribbling a ball in their direction. “Hey, Antwone, go get Uncle Sam or T-Rex!”

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