Read The Stranger: The Heroes of Heyday (Harlequin Superromance No. 1266) Online
Authors: Kathleen O'Brien
Tags: #Contemporary, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Virginia
|The Stranger: The Heroes of Heyday (Harlequin Superromance No. 1266)|
|Tags:||Contemporary, General, Romance, Fiction, Virginia|
Tyler thought of the silly little city, where everything, even the coed prostitutes, had a circus theme. He thought of the old bastard Anderson McClintock, who had run the city like a feudal overlord. He thought of his brothers, Kieran and Bryce, whom Tyler had seen occasionally on the streets or in the stores, but had otherwise avoided.
Now that he'd committed to writing this book, he was going to have to return to Heyday sooner or later. He was a good reporter, and he wouldn't leave all those stones unturned.
But he remembered the Heyday residents who hated his guts. He particularly remembered Mallory Rackham, who had run the Ringmaster CafÃ©, where the Heyday Eight had gathered to make their dates and count their profits.
Mallory, who had let Tyler spend so many hours there, chatting her up and complimenting her coffee, never guessing that he was gathering notes for his exposÃ©.
Mallory, beautiful and ridiculously naive, whose husband had been one of the Heyday Eight's best customers. Mallory, who had tossed a plate of French fries, complete with ketchup, into Tyler's face when she found out who he really was.
Mallory, who for some strange reason was the only person in ten years to put Tyler's disciplined objectivity and emotional distance in jeopardy.
“All right,” he said, ignoring the wriggle of doubt. “I'll come back to Heyday.”
It's not easy being the older sister. I should knowâI've got one, and I've spent most of my life driving her crazy!
My sister is only two years older than I am, but in our family she's called the “mother pretend.” At five, I was afraid to go upstairs alone, so she trotted up into the darkness at my side. At ten, I broke the priceless Oriental vase, but she told our parents she did it. Later she pierced my ears, cut my hair and taught me that sometimes less is more, especially in bad boys and blue eye shadow. She played ambassador (“Let her go, he's a nice guy”), counselor (“let him go, he's a jerk”) and cheerleader (“look at her go, isn't she super?”). I didn't ask her to do these things. I didn't have to.
So when I had to write the story of Mallory Rackham, who suddenly finds that protecting her troubled younger sister will be both frightening and expensive, I knew where to go for inspiration. All I had to ask myself wasâwhat would my sister do to save me? The answer was simple. Anything.
A woman like that deserves a special man, someone who understands all about love and loyalty. But sexy Tyler Balfour hardly fits that description. The third brother in the complicated McClintock clan, Tyler is a confirmed outsider. He has no interest in getting involved.
Then he meets Mallory.
I hope you enjoy their story. And if you have older sisters or brothers like mine, give them a hug today. They've undoubtedly earned it!
P.S. I love to hear from readers! Please write me at P.O. Box 947633 or stop by my Web site, KathleenOBrien.net.
Three-time finalist for the Romance Writers of America's RITA
Award, Kathleen is the author of more than twenty novels for Harlequin Books. After a short career as a television critic and feature writer, Kathleen traded in journalism for fictionâand the chance to be a stay-at-home mother. A native Floridian, she and her husband live just outside Orlando, only a few miles from their grown children.
927âTHE REAL FATHER
967âA SELF-MADE MAN
1047âBABES IN ARMS
1086âTHE REDEMPTION OF MATTHEW QUINN
1146âTHE ONE SAFE PLACE
1176âTHE HOMECOMING BABY
HARLEQUIN SINGLE TITLE
MYSTERIES OF LOST ANGEL INN
“The Edge of Memory”
SIGNATURE SELECT SPOTLIGHT
HAPPILY NEVER AFTER
many things about owning a bookstore in Heyday, Virginia, but balancing the bank accounts wasn't one of them.
What a joke! Watching the numbers on her computer screen cling to the “plus” column was as nerve-racking as watching an acrobat bicycle across the high wire without a net.
And she hadn't even entered this month's sales-tax payment. She typed a few keys, and, sure enough, the dollar total tumbled off the tightrope and somersaulted straight into the red.
She put her head in her hands and groaned. Apparently living your whole life in Heyday did things to your mind. Heyday had been built around a circus legend, and from the Big Top Diner to the Ringmaster Parade it was a one-theme town. And now she was even going bankrupt in circus metaphors.
“Mallory?” Wally Pierson, the teenager she'd hired to work the cash register in the afternoons, stuck his head through her office door. “The guy from the place is here. He wants to know if you need some more thingies.”
She looked at Wally, wondering when teenagers had stopped using nouns. She was only twenty-eight, but Wally always made her feel old, with his tattoo and his piercings and his multicolored hair.
“You mean the sales rep? About the bookmarks?”
“Yeah.” Wally clicked his tongue stud against his teeth. “So you want some?”
She stared at the computer screen. She wanted some, all right. They sold well, and the markup was extremely advantageous, much better than some of the books. But how was she going to pay for them?
“Yes. But tell him just to replace what's sold. Nothing new until next month.”
Wally nodded and disappeared, leaving her alone with the computer screen, which was still blinking bright red.
She was going to have to borrow money from her personal account again this month. She began typing. Goodbye to the haircut, even though she'd put it off three months now and her “breezy, low-maintenance” cut stood up in spikes that made her look slightly electrified. Goodbye to the steak dinner she'd been going to cook for Roddy Friday nightâhe'd have to settle for pasta, though if ever a man was a born carnivore, it was Roddy Hartland.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. When she saw the final number in the home account, she grimaced. Not even enough for pasta. She felt herself sliding toward self-pity, so she closed her folder of bills briskly and wiggled her fingers to shake it off. Roddy was a millionaire. She'd make him take her out to dinner.
“Mallory?” Wally's head was in the door again, so she arranged her face in a calm smile. He knew she was doing the books, and of course he knew business had been off lately. Wally's weekly paycheck wasn't huge, but it was important to him. No need to make the kid wonder where his next Whopper was coming from.
“Phone's for you. Some rude guy, won't give his name. Just said to tell you it's about your sister's wedding.”
Oh, hell. Mallory had completely forgotten that the first check was due to the country club at the end of the month, to reserve the room. Her eyes instinctively darted back to the computer screen. If she typed that entry in right now, the whole thing would probably explode in a storm of flying red numbers.
“Another salesman, do you think?” The minute Mindy's engagement had hit the papers, the phone had started ringing. Apparently people assumed that when you married a state senator's son, you had a fortune to spend on satin and lace and geegaws. They seemed to forget that the bride's family paid for the wedding.
“Doesn't sound like a salesman,” Wally said, toying with the silver ring in his eyebrow. “Sounds like a weirdo, actually. Voice like Darth Vader.”
Great. Just what she needed. Darth Vader peddling pink votives and silver-tasseled chair shawls.
“Thanks, Wally,” she said. “I'll handle it.”
He ducked out, clearly relieved that she hadn't asked him to get rid of the caller.
“Good morning,” Mallory chirped as she pulled the phone toward her.
You've reached the offices of Maxed Out and Dead Broke.
But when she picked up the receiver, sanity reasserted itself, and she merely said, “Rackham Books. This is Mallory Rackham.”
“Good morning, Miss Rackham,” a strange, electronic voice said slowly.
Mallory's hand tightened around the telephone. How bizarre. The voice didn't even sound quite human, and yet it managed to convey all kinds of unpleasant things with those four simple words. Everything from an unwanted familiarity to a subtle threat.
That was ridiculous, of course. A threat of what? She was a small-town bookstore owner, not James Bond. And yet this voice was mechanically altered. Why would anyone do that?
“Who is this?”
“I want you to listen to me carefully. I have some instructions for you.”
He ignored her question again. “I want you to go to the bank this afternoon. I want you to get fifty twenty-dollar bills and wrap them in a plastic baggie.”
Oh, good grief. This was ridiculous, like something out of a gangster movie. Did she recognize anything about this voice? Could it be a joke? Roddy loved jokes.
But the hard kernel of anxiety in the pit of her
stomach said no. She didn't begin to understand what was going on here, but she somehow knew it was no joke.
“Look, I don't know what you're talking about, but I don't like your tone. I'm going to hangâ”
“I'm only going to say this once, Mallory, so you'd better listen.” The metallic voice had an implacable sound, a cruel sound. She felt her spine tingle and go soft. She leaned back against her chair and tried to think clearly. Who would dare take this tone with her?
“Put the baggie in a small brown lunch bag and close it with packing tape. Then take the bag to the Fell's Point Ferry tomorrow morning.”
In spite of her confusion, in spite of her outrage that anyone would talk to her this way, she instinctively reached for a pencil and began to make notes.
“Buy a ticket for the 11:00 a.m. trip,” he continued. “The Green Diamond Ferry. When you get on, go immediately to the front. Put the bag under the first seat on the left, the one closest to the bow. And then get off the boat and go home.”
She scribbled, her mind racing. Not because she had any intention of taking orders from an anonymous blackmailer, but because, at the very least, she should have some concrete record to show the police.
“Did you get that, Mallory? Do you know what you're supposed to do?”
“Yes,” she said. She put down her pencil. “What I don't know is why you think I would agree to do it.”
He chuckled. It was a terrible sound, full of unnatu
ral metallic reverberations, like laughter emanating from a steel casket.
“You'll do it because you're a good sister. You'll do it because you love that spoiled brat Mindy, and you wouldn't want to see anything happen to that classy wedding of hers.”
Mallory scalp tingled. “Her wedding?”
“Yes. You wouldn't want me to ruin her wedding, would you? Senator Earnshaw's sonâ¦Frederick, isn't it? He's such a good catch. So handsome, soâ”
“How could you do that?” She reached out blindly and clicked off the computer screen, her body on autopilot while her mind struggled to figure out what was going on. What was he getting at? What exactly was he threatening to do? “How could you possibly ruin my sister's wedding?”
He laughed again. “Easy,” he said. “I'd just tell the senator and his son about Mindy's nasty little secret.”
For a second Mallory couldn't answer. She was suddenly aware that her heart was thumping, hard and erratic, like a fish struggling on a wooden dock.
This wasn't possible. This couldn't be happening. No one knew aboutâ¦
Not even Tyler Balfour, big-time, muckraking, investigative journalist, had discovered Mindy's part in the wholeâ
“Are you there, Mallory?” The voice slowed, no doubt savoring her shock. “Are you thinking about it? About the scandal? Mindy's always been a little weak, hasn't she? Not too stable. God only knows what she'd do if her fancy wedding fell apart.”
Mallory opened her mouth, but in place of her normal voice she heard only a strange, thin sound, so she shut it again.
The electronic voice hardened. “Be on that ferry, Mallory. Or I'll have to tell poor Freddy Earnshaw that his lovely bride is nothing but a two-bit prostitute.”
OR AS LONG AS
she could remember, when things got a little bumpy, Mallory had turned to her smart, sensible mother for advice and comfort.
Elizabeth Rackham had a straightforward approach to life. She called it “Eliminate Step B.” Life was as simple as ABC, she said. Everyone faced problemsâthat was Step A. Most people dithered and worried and agonized, which she called Step B. Then they reacted, which was Step C. Elizabeth's theory was that, if you could just discipline yourself to eliminate Step B, you'd make much better decisions about Step C. And save yourself a lot of grief in the process.
So naturally, as soon as Mallory closed down the bookstore that night, with the ugly echoes of the metallic voice still ringing in her ears, she headed straight for a visit with her mother.
The Heyday Chronic Care Center was brightly lit and welcoming, though it was late by the time Mallory arrived. The nurse at the front desk smiled and waved her back to the private rooms. No one bothered to make Mallory sign in anymore. They all knew her too well. She'd been coming through those double glass doors almost every night for two years now.
Her mother's room was dim, and the satellite television was set to a classical music station. Small white letters inched their way up the black screen.
the letters said.
In spite of everything, now that she was here, Mallory felt herself begin to relax. Her mother always had that effect on her. Even now.
Dropping her heavy purse on the floor, she plopped down onto the bedside chair, kicked off her sandals and took her mother's hand in a warm hello squeeze.
“I'm sorry I'm late, Mom,” she said. She leaned her head back against the soft headrest and shut her eyes. Verdi washed over her like a bath, cleaning away the dirty feeling that had clung to her ever since she'd spent five minutes on the telephone with a blackmailer. “It was a crazy day.”
But where should she begin? Ordinarily, on these visits, she kept the conversation light and upbeat. She didn't burden her mother with the petty problems of everyday life. She didn't mention the overdue bills or the crummy book sales. She didn't mention that Dan, her bum ex-husband, who had never forked over the last installment of the divorce settlement, was now dating a teenager and said it was “serious.” Not that Mallory cared, except that apparently this teenager was expensive, which meant that Dan was even less likely to get around to paying up.
And, of course, she never, ever mentioned what she had discovered about Mindy. How could she? They'd all been so horrified when Tyler Balfour had uncov
ered a prostitution ring at Moresville College. And when they had learned that the Rackhams' own little cafÃ© had been the headquarters, the rendezvous point for the girls and their customers, her mother had been furious and mortified.
Then, about three months later, one of the betrayed wives whose husband had been “outed” in Balfour's story had thrown a gasoline can through the front window of the cafÃ© and followed it with a lighted match. Heyday firefighters had done their best, but the place, which Elizabeth Rackham had built from scratch after her own divorce twelve years ago, had burned to the ground.
“I've got a big problem, Mom.” Mallory didn't open her eyes. She just held on to her mother's soft, graceful hand. Elizabeth Rackham was fifty-five, but she didn't look a day over forty. Everyone said she was the most beautiful woman they had ever met.
“It's about Mindy. She's fine right nowâthe wedding is only eight weeks away. Frederick is crazy about her, it's really sweet to see them together. But there's someoneâsomeone who would like to spoil things. I think I can stop this guy, but I'm not sure it's the right thing to do.”
She felt hot moisture pushing at her eyelids, so she squeezed her eyes even more tightly. She would not cry. Crying over a problem fell into Step B, and strong women never indulged in Step B.
“What should I do, Mom? Should I protect Mindy, no matter what it takes? I just don't know what she'd
do if she lost Frederick now. She's better, really she is. It's not like before, when sheâ¦when she didn't even want to go on living.”
Her throat closed painfully as she remembered that horrible time. The blood all over the bathroom, spilling over Mindy's pale wrists like red lace cuffs.
Finally she opened her eyes, letting the tears fall silently down her cheeks. She looked at her mother. If only she would answer her. If only she would give her some advice, tell her what to do.
But she wouldn't, not ever again. Elizabeth Rackham looked as if she were peacefully sleeping, but it was nothing as natural as that. She'd had a stroke two years ago, and the doctors told Mallory that, according to all the tests, her mother wasn't aware that her daughter was in the room.
The next morning, Mallory got in the car, a brown paper package on the seat beside her, and drove carefully through the silver spring rain. She passed the police station. She passed Roddy's house. She passed the Heyday Chronic Care Center. She found the sign that said “MarylandâFell's Point Harbor” and she hit the gas. She'd have to hurry if she was going to be on that ferry before eleven.