by Carol J. Post
With a relentless stalker after her, Melissa Langston flees Georgia for her small Florida hometown. Despite changing her name, she soon finds anonymous notes on her doorstep and a menacing figure lurking in the shadows. She's sure her stalker has tracked her down, but the police think she's overreacting. The only one who believes she's in danger is the former cop who broke her heart years ago. Melissa is afraid to get too close to ex-fiancé Chris Jamison, who is back in town to settle family business. Because the more she turns to the handsome man she's never forgotten, the more her stalker wants Chris gone—permanently.
Excerpt of chapter one:
One of the worst since returning to Harmony Grove four months ago. Nothing catastrophic—no earthquakes or hurricanes or even small house fires. Her escape-artist cat was recaptured and locked safely inside, she had plenty of bread to replace the two burnt slices, and her clothes had finally dried after her sprint into her office through pouring rain. Just lots of minor annoyances that had a way of ruining a person's day.
But it was almost over. One more deposition and she could go home, provided the roof didn't fall in.
Melissa took a seat at the end of the table and began to set up her steno machine. Then her gaze dropped to the deposition notice, and she froze, one hand on the tripod and the other sprawled across the top of the machine.
The roof could have fallen in at that moment. She probably wouldn't have noticed.
She stared at the name and wrestled in a breath through constricted airways. The vise that gripped her heart was painfully familiar. So was the bitterness gnawing a hole in her gut. But that was ancient history. She had conquered any stray feelings for Chris Jamison, beating them into submission until they retreated, cowering, to some dark, untouched corner of her heart. When that hadn't worked, she had shoved them aside with frenzied activity.
Her eyes swept over the name again. It couldn't be the same Chris Jamison. Hers had left Florida five years ago, with no intention of coming back. Of course, so had she. Life had a way of disrupting the best of plans.
Two attorneys entered, and when the buzzer on the conference room phone sounded, Attorney Daniels held the receiver to his ear. "Great. I'll meet him at the top of the stairs."
Her heart jumped to double time, and a sudden sheet of moisture coated her palms. There weren't many names on her People-I-Hope-to-Never-See-Again list, but Chris Jamison's was right near the top. She wiped her hands on her skirt, then brushed imaginary specks from the lacquered mahogany conference table. Moments later, voices drifted into the room.
"Mr. Jamison? I'm Jonathan Daniels."
"Chris Jamison. Sorry I'm late. The Friday afternoon traffic was worse than I expected."
Oh, no, it's him! That smooth, rich baritone was unmistakable. A bolt of panic shot through her, and she glanced wildly around the room, looking for a way of escape. There was the open door, with Mr. Daniels and his witness just outside, and the window directly behind her. An image sprang to mind—a heel-clad reporter climbing through the opening and plopping unceremoniously into the bushes below—and the panic threatened to give way to hysterical laughter. She struggled to compose herself. Any second he would walk through the door.
Her hands flew to her hair, which wasn't likely to go anywhere. It was pulled into a French braid and secured with a silver clip, an emergency purchase after her rain fiasco. And her skirt and jacket were fine. She resisted the urge to straighten them and willed her body to relax. If she couldn't feel confident, she could at least look it.
No amount of willpower, however, could prepare her for the moment he stepped inside. Five long years slipped away in an instant, and every sweet moment they had ever shared crashed back on her in one massive wave.
Little had changed. He had obviously kept up his gym membership—the pale blue sports shirt and dark dress jeans couldn't camouflage the rock-hard body beneath. And his sandy-blond hair was as thick as ever, an irresistible mix of styled good taste and windswept charm. He stood with one thumb hooked into his jeans pocket, the epitome of confidence, making her loss of composure feel that much more complete.
"And," Mr. Daniels continued, "this is Melissa Morris, our court reporter."
Chris started to nod, then froze midgreeting. His dark eyes registered recognition, then denial, realization and finally shock. His lower jaw went slack, and he stared at her in wide-eyed silence. Seeing him so befuddled boosted her own sagging confidence, and she was again struck with an irrational urge to laugh. She squelched the urge, but couldn't conquer the grin quivering at the corners of her mouth.
He recovered all too quickly. Hardness crept into his gaze, and he acknowledged her with a curt nod. "Pleased to meet you."
The lie rolled easily off his tongue. But a muscle twitched in his lower jaw, calling him out. He was anything but pleased.
Mr. Daniels indicated the chair next to her. "Have a seat, and we'll get this over with."
She jerked her gaze away from Chris to the attorney. His words seemed oddly out of place. How could life continue uninterrupted when her whole world had been turned upside down?
She nodded and gathered her scattered thoughts. Those eyes once again settled on her, dark and brooding. What was his problem? After all, he was the one who had withheld his trust and made ridiculous accusations. But she was the one who had walked in on every woman's worst nightmare. And the one left with the distasteful job of "uninviting" 175 guests to a wedding that would never take place.
"Raise your right hand, please." As soon as she began to administer the oath, she got tongue-tied. Her mouth didn't want to cooperate. The pleasant aroma of her after-lunch breath mint was long gone, replaced by a distinct flavor of metal, as if she had chewed and swallowed a box of nails. She shot a prayer heavenward and tried again, this time successful.
Mr. Daniels began his questioning. "State your name for the record, please."
"Christopher Wayne Jamison."
"What is your residence address?"
She stopped, fingers suspended over the keys. Lakeland! What was he doing in central Florida?
The deposition continued—question, answer, question, answer—and she skillfully recorded every word. He was in Florida temporarily running his father's marine store, on leave from the Memphis Police Department, which meant he wasn't going to stay. He had visited a year earlier and witnessed the defendant run a red light and slam into the plaintiff. And he remembered the defendant appeared intoxicated, an observation that drew an objection from Mr. Edwards, attorney for the defense.
But the answers she really wanted wouldn't come out in testimony. Namely, did his life turn out as he had hoped, or did he kick himself for the choices he had made? Had she invaded his thoughts as much as he had hers over the past five years? And why did he blame her for what went wrong between them, when he was the one who messed up?
Mr. Daniels finished his questioning, and Attorney Edwards began his cross-examination. Thank goodness, it was almost over. Sitting next to Chris for the past thirty minutes was like slowly tearing the scab from a wound, which made no sense. Any wounds he had inflicted had long since healed over. At least she thought they had. It was easy to convince herself she was over him when he was three hundred miles away.
"No further questions." Mr. Edwards laid down his pen.
A familiar uneasiness crept over her, that hollow-gut-compressed-chest sensation she used to get before a presentation or big test. Lord, please don't make me have to talk to him. She hauled in a stabilizing breath. If she took her time packing up her equipment, Chris would be gone before she reached the parking lot.
Or not. Mr. Daniels addressed him. "How's the marine business?"
"Pretty busy, actually, in spite of the poor economy."
"Glad to hear it. I'm a regular customer of yours. I've been restoring an old Chris-Craft, so Jamison Marine has become a regular entry on my credit card statements. You know the definition of a boat—a hole in the water you throw money into."
Chris laughed. "You got that right. 'Boat' is an acronym. It stands for 'break out another thousand.'" He leaned back in his chair, lips curved into a relaxed smile, warm and friendly. That smile wasn't for her. But her heart answered with an unexpected flutter anyway.
She dropped her gaze and slid her steno machine into its case. Keep talking. It didn't matter who left first, as long as they didn't leave together. If she got her equipment packed up quickly enough, he would still be knee-deep in boat talk.
That wasn't unusual for Chris—both the topic and the ease of conversation. He had that smooth, simple manner that encouraged openness, even from total strangers. And a smile that could charm the slippers right off an ice princess. But she wasn't going to think about that.
Soon her notice, pen and tape recorder were tucked away, along with the steno machine. And that was the moment the conversation died. Chris stood to leave, and because she had no other choice, she did, too.
He followed her into the hall. "I thought you were living in Atlanta."
"And I thought you were in Tennessee."
"I was till three weeks ago. My dad died suddenly, so I came back to wrap things up."
"I'm sorry." She really was. "I didn't know."
"It was unexpected. He was fine one minute, dead of a heart attack the next."
He swung open the heavy oak door and held it for her. The instant she stepped through, a wall of heat and humidity pressed into her, sucking the air from her lungs. The day's sporadic rain showers had finally stopped, and the sun was out full force, transforming the parking lot into a concrete sauna. She sucked in a steamy breath. Fall was less than two weeks away. But someone forgot to tell Florida.
He let the door swing shut. "I've taken a three-month leave of absence from the force, but hopefully it won't take that long to find a buyer for the house and store."
"I see." She unclipped her keys from the D-ring on the side of her purse and started across the parking lot. Azaleas blazed hot-fuchsia against a white vinyl fence, and palm trees stood at attention, fronds waving lazily in a gentle breeze, whispering that all was right with the world. The scene was deceptively serene. At the moment, her world was anything but.
"How long have you been back?" he asked.
"Four months." Plus one week and three days. And she still hadn't stopped looking over her shoulder. Eugene didn't know where she had gone. He had no idea where "home" was or that she had changed her name. She even got her mail at a post office box in another town. But none of those precautions took away the nightmares or brought back her former carefree life.
Chris cleared his throat and pulled his own keys from his pocket. "So when did you get married?" She looked at him sharply. "Huh?"
"Oh, that." She shrugged. "I'm not married."
He arched one brow and tilted his head in silent question—one she left unanswered.
"So what brought you back?" he asked.
"Some friends got transferred and didn't want to leave the house vacant." Of course, there was more to it than that. Being given use of the Tylers' four-bedroom, three-bath house on five acres for nothing more than upkeep and utilities costs was tempting enough. But when the offer came right when she was planning her escape from Atlanta, that clinched it.
His brows again arched upward. "And you picked up and moved from another state just to help them out? That's pretty generous of you."
"It was time for a change." She opened her passenger door and put her equipment on the seat. When she turned back around, he stood studying her with those probing eyes. She closed her door and brushed past him. He could save his detective work for the Memphis P.D. She didn't need his help.
He followed her around to the driver's side. "Take it easy."
"You, too." She opened her door and slid into the seat. "I'm sorry about your father. I hope it all goes well for you, getting the store sold and everything."
"Thank you." He closed her door and dipped his head in farewell. His eyes glinted golden in the fading afternoon sun, stirring to life embers long since burned out, and she fought against the effect. After all that had happened between them, she shouldn't feel anything except bitterness.
As she started the car and put it in Reverse, a scene flashed into her mind, so vivid she wanted to retch—Chris in the arms of her best friend. Oh, yes, the bitterness was still there. One didn't easily forget that kind of betrayal.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
The verse intruded unexpectedly, and she reached for the radio dial, pushing the thought aside. Soft rock filled the car, some seventies love song written long before she was born. She focused on the words, clinging to the distraction they offered. It didn't help.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
After only three months in the faith, she was no scholar. But she had a nagging suspicion that "debtors" might somehow include Chris. What exactly did God expect?
I don't hate him. Isn't that good enough?
A gentle nudge told her it wasn't.
The traffic light ahead turned yellow, and she eased to a stop. Moments later, deep bass rattled her windows and reverberated in her chest. She glanced at the rusted Dodge next to her and reached for her own radio dial. Blaring music wasn't such a bad idea. Anything to drown out that nudge that wasn't so gentle anymore.
She didn't want to listen to that still, small voice. In fact, she wanted to leave God out of the whole situation. Because if she asked in earnest, He would probably give her an answer, one she didn't want to hear. He would likely demand that she let go of the past and forgive the unforgivable.
And she just wasn't ready.
Chris pulled from the parking lot, following the same route Melissa had taken. Except his would end a few blocks down, at the Lakeland home where he grew up. Since his return, he had avoided the little town of Harmony Grove, some thirty minutes away. And tonight was no exception. Even more so now that Melissa was back.
Walking into that attorney's office and seeing her sitting there had left him reeling. That was a part of his life he had neatly bundled up and locked away. Maybe if he could have had some warning, some time to prepare… Who was he kidding? Facing Melissa again would have knocked the foundation out from under him no matter how much advance notice he got.
Five years ago, she'd broken his heart. For two years he hated her. Then he found out how wrong he'd been.
And he'd spent the next two years hating himself.
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