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Excerpt - A Deadly Game by Virginia Smith

A Deadly Game
Virginia Smith

After discovering her boss's dead body, Susanna Trent receives an unusual package from him filled with strange metal tokens and odd clues. Then Susanna, who is the guardian of her three-year-old niece, starts getting anonymous phone calls taunting her with thinly veiled threats. Worried for her life and that of her sister's child, Susanna struggles to trust the one man who can help: wealthy executive Jack Townsend. As they work together to solve the mysterious puzzle, Jack and Susanna are led into a dangerous game neither knows how to play. But they do know the stakes—life or death.

Excerpt of chapter one:

The moment she rounded the corner of the building, Susanna Trent knew something was wrong. To her right, darkness shrouded the wooded area that ran the length of the building housing Ingram Industries. Tiny frozen daggers of sleet sliced through the nighttime sky to fall onto the crowded evergreen branches, the contact goading the trees into an eerie dance. To her left, slivers of light peeked through the cracks of closed blinds in the floor-to-ceiling office windows. Sleet stung her cheeks and slapped at the nylon hood of her jacket as she skidded to a halt on the sidewalk.

Behind her, Jack Townsend didn't stop quite as quickly. He bumped into her, and almost knocked her off her feet.

Jack slipped a strong hand under her arm to steady her. "Sorry about that."

Susanna acknowledged the apology with an absent nod, her stare fixed on the windows. A finger of disquiet tapped at the edges of her mind. She'd expected to see her boss standing there, waiting for her to arrive with his new Corvette. Mr. Ingram had been ecstatic when she called him after the auction ended to tell him that she'd succeeded in buying the car he wanted. Why wasn't he watching for the moment she arrived, ready to dash outside to see it? Something definitely wasn't right here.

Jack's head turned as he followed her gaze. "Is something wrong?"

Susanna shook her head, as much to dislodge the uneasy feelings as to answer. "It's just that the blinds are closed. They're never closed."

"Maybe he wanted some privacy."

"From what?" She pointed toward the desolate woods. "Nobody ever comes back here except him and me."

Jack peered into the ice-covered evergreens, then shrugged. "Why don't we ask him?"

His smile tilted sideways, and Susanna couldn't help but admire the guy's strong jaw, chiseled nose and short-cropped dark hair. They'd just met a few hours ago, at the car auction, and she'd noted his wholesome good looks right off. Normally she would have found him attractive, but Jack Townsend was exactly the kind of man she made a point of avoiding. He shared too much in common with someone she hoped she'd never have to see again.

Still, he was doing Mr. Ingram a favor by delivering the new Corvette. She had to admit that was a nice gesture, especially when he had been bidding against her for the same car. Unusual, too. In Susanna's experience, the sons of billionaires were far too self-centered to do something nice for someone else.

She glanced again at the closed blinds and couldn't completely dismiss the feeling of foreboding that bloomed. Hurrying to the heavy metal door, she shrugged the strap of her voluminous handbag from her shoulder. The cavernous interior of the purse held a wealth of useful personal items, with plenty of room for the envelope containing the papers for Mr. Ingram's new car. But it also ate keys. She rummaged inside, shaking to listen for the telltale jingle. Finally, she found them. Her gloved fingers fumbled to locate the right one, and she shoved it into the lock.

The hallway inside was empty, but it would be at this time of night. Susanna led Jack down the short corridor and around the corner. A quick glance toward the front of the building showed that the main lights were off in the accounting department. Stillness filled the office, normally bustling in the daytime. A few safety lights cast a dim glow over the empty desks.

She didn't pause when she entered her own work space, but hurried across the carpeted floor, past her tidy desk. The door to Mr. Ingram's private office had been pulled almost closed. Was he on a phone call, maybe? She halted for a moment, but didn't hear any noise from inside.

"Mr. Ingram?" She tapped on the wood, the sound muted by her gloves. "I'm here with your car."

No answer. Alarm crept like spider legs up the back of Susanna's neck. Something was wrong; she could feel it. She exchanged a glance with Jack, whose brows had drawn together over eyes dark with concern.

"Mr. Ingram? Is everything okay?"

Susanna laid a gloved hand on the solid door and gave a gentle push. It swung inward, and she slipped through the enlarged opening. The desk chair was empty, but her gaze was drawn to the floor.

A body lay halfway hidden behind the big wooden desk. But the head was visible. The image seared into Susanna's brain like a hot brand, and she knew she would remember it as long as she lived. Mr. Ingram's face was purple, his eyes bulging from their sockets to stare at something no living person could see.

A scream tore from her throat.

While the police officer took his statement, Jack tried not to look toward Ingram's open office door. From the corner of his eye he saw a flash from the investigator's camera as it photographed the body. He suppressed a shudder and glanced in the opposite direction, where Susanna sat huddled in a chair, her face hidden behind a curtain of blond hair. The horrified sound of her scream still echoed in his ears. She spoke quietly into a cell phone, which she held cupped to the side of her head with one hand while she massaged her temples with the thumb and forefinger of the other. Something about the way her drooping shoulders gave an occasional heave, as if she was holding back sobs, made Jack want to cross the room and place a comforting arm around her.

The thought brought a sour taste to his mouth. An offer of compassion might be viewed as an invitation, and he wasn't about to get himself any more involved with Susanna Trent than he already was. They'd known each other only a few hours, and already the gruesome specter of a dead body had polluted any budding relationship they might have enjoyed. That, and the fact that she knew who he was. The name Townsend cast a long shadow in Lexington, Kentucky.

"Thank you for answering our questions, Mr. Townsend." Jack pulled his attention away from Susanna and focused on the police detective. The man, who had identified himself as Detective Rollins, gave a quick smile. "If you don't mind, we'd like to get an address and phone number where we can reach you in case something comes up that we need to clarify."

"Of course." Jack slid his wallet out of his jeans pocket and extracted a card.

Rollins took it out of his hand and studied it. "Vice President of Supply for Townsend Steakhouses, Inc." The detective didn't bother to hide the fact that he was impressed. "That sounds like an important job."

"Yes, it certainly does." Jack worded his answer carefully, and hoped his smile was sincere.

The detective's expression turned quizzical, but he didn't pursue the matter. "Well, we may be in touch. In the meantime, if you think of anything that could be helpful, give us a call."

Rollins handed the card to the uniformed officer standing next to him, who began copying information from it. With another quick smile, this time in dismissal, the detective headed for Ingram's office.

Apparently Jack was free to leave. He glanced toward Susanna, who had not moved from her chair and was still speaking quietly into her phone. Hopefully she was talking to someone who would offer her the support she needed. A boyfriend, maybe. Though he felt a twinge of guilt at leaving her to face the detective's questions alone, he had his own call to make. He'd put it off long enough.

Jack extracted his cell phone from his pocket and pressed the power button as he stepped from the building into the cold evening air. He hurried down the sidewalk toward his truck, which still had the big covered car trailer hitched to the back. The sleet had stopped for the moment, but his breath froze in visible puffs as he scrolled down the listings in his cell phone address book to the entry for his father, R. H. Townsend. When Jack came to work in the office of Townsend Steakhouses, his father had insisted that he stop being childish and address him as R.H., like all the other management employees. In Jack's mind, he'd been R.H. for years anyway. Giving that cold man the title Father had felt wrong for a long time.

The time read just past nine, which meant that R.H. would be in his home office, working for several more hours before he went to bed. Jack pictured him behind his desk, reading from a neat stack of papers, jotting notes on the yellow legal pad he kept nearby at all times to record the not-infrequent ideas that kept the research and development department at Townsend Steakhouses in a perpetual state of flustered activity.

The phone didn't finish the first ring.

"I've been trying to call you for hours. Did you get the car?" No greeting. R. H. Townsend rarely wasted time on pleasantries.

"I'm afraid not. The b—"


A string of foul language polluted the airspace between Jack's phone and his father's. Jack set his teeth together and endured the tirade. If the frigid air had turned blue around him, he wouldn't have been surprised. His father's language was rarely appropriate for Sunday school, but this outburst went on longer than usual.

When he paused for a breath, Jack jumped in to defend himself. "Wait a minute. If you'll just listen—"

"Listen? That's what I expected you to do—listen to me, and do as you were told. But I guess it was asking too much to expect you to follow one simple request."

The scorn in his father's words was all too familiar. It was a tone Jack had heard many times since his boyhood.

"Who bought it?"

Jack squeezed his eyes shut before he said the name. "Tom Ingram's secretary."

"You let a secretary buy my car out from under your nose?"

Another tirade followed, and Jack let it run dry before he offered his explanation. "The car sold for thirty thousand dollars. I checked a whole list of comparables before I left for the auction, so I know that's more than it was worth.

But I located another red Corvette up near Indianapolis, and it's in even b—"

"Just forget it. I don't want to hear your excuses."

With iron control, Jack bit back the words that threatened to shoot out of his mouth. His chest expanded slowly as he drew icy air into his lungs. He'd long ago given up trying to defend his actions to his father.

Besides, he had another blow to deliver, and there was no way to soften it. His father and Thomas Ingram had been friends.

Jack kept his tone even as he spoke. "R.H., I have something to tell you that may come as a shock." He drew another breath, then broke the news. "Tom Ingram is dead."

"Dead? Don't tell me he wrecked the car as soon as he got it."

Jack arrived at the pickup, and unlocked the door with a click of the remote. "No, it wasn't an accident. He was killed. Murdered, right in his office."

Silence on the line. Jack opened the door and climbed into the driver's seat. A trace of warmth still lingered in the cab from his ninety-minute drive after the auction. He pictured his father, seated in his high-backed chair, digesting the news. He and Ingram were among a small group of wealthy businessmen who'd been in the habit of getting together for a monthly poker game for the past several years. Ingram's death would be a blow to them all.

"That's…terrible. Just terrible. Where did you hear about it? Is it on the radio?"

"No, I don't think the press has gotten wind of the news yet. After his secretary bought the car, she couldn't find a transport company to deliver it tonight. They were all booked solid for several days. Since I had taken an empty trailer with me anyway, I offered to bring the Corvette back to Lexington for her. We found the body when we got here."

"Wait a minute. First you let someone else buy my car, and then you delivered it for her?"

Jack stiffened at the outrage in his father's voice. "Maybe you didn't hear me. I just told you that your friend has been killed—murdered—and I found the body. And all you can think about is a car?"

"I said it was terrible. What more do you want me to say?" Jack heard a quick intake of breath. "What's going to happen to the car now? Ingram certainly doesn't need it anymore."

He shook his head, unable to answer for a moment. Obviously he'd been wrong to describe Ingram as his father's friend. R.H. had no friends. He had social acquaintances, business associates and employees, but certainly no one in whom he would confide as a friend. Jack had heard the lecture many times growing up—confidences were an act of weakness. Why would you tell someone your thoughts and give them a weapon that might be used against you later? Being too open with people was one of the many things for which R. H. Townsend faulted his son.

Still, a man had been murdered. Jack had known his father rarely wasted time on sentimentality, but to express an interest in the Corvette this soon? It was downright callous.

If that's what being a successful businessman leads to, Lord, then save me from success.

There was no use trying to convince his father that the question was inappropriate. The man was a brusque, uncaring businessman through and through, and he wasn't likely to change his attitude anytime soon.

Jack finally managed an even response. "I overheard his secretary tell the police that Ingram has two daughters.

The car probably belongs to them now. Maybe they'd be willing to sell it to you."

"How long do you think that would take?"

Jack closed his eyes. "I really don't know."

"Check on it then."

A click, and the call disconnected. For a long time, Jack sat staring at the phone. He'd seen his father make some harsh business decisions with little regard for the people whose lives he had affected. He'd watched him sign away the jobs and livelihood of hundreds of employees with the flourish of a pen, without even a passing thought to their welfare. Heard him more than once berate midlevel managers with language that should have resulted in lawsuits. And he'd been on the receiving end of that famous Townsend temper more times than he could count. He thought nothing the man could do would surprise him anymore. But this reaction to Tom Ingram's death plunged to a new depth. R.H. had proven himself to be completely heartless.

The cab lost the last of its warmth, and a circle of breath frosted on the inside of the windshield. Jack shook himself free of his thoughts and jumped out of the truck. He'd better go back inside and find out how to contact Ingram's daughters about the Corvette. If he didn't, R.H. would do it himself. At least Jack could try to handle the situation tactfully.

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