This excerpt is from Deadly Alliance.
There she was on a Friday morning in October in Lake Arrowhead heading for her third interview with Finn. Big mistake. Amy doubted he would hire her. Not if he knew what she’d discovered last night. Les or someone close to him had lodged a dirty secret inside her folder for shorts patterns.
Clenching the dratted envelope, she wasn’t the hopeful person she was yesterday when she stumbled through Arrowhead Cafe’s open door. Her achy toe twinged in pain, minor compared to the growing pulse across her forehead. As she whiffed rich, oily coffee, her stomach protested. She eased her way through bodies. Like everywhere in their lake community on a Friday, the restaurant crawled with out-of-towners.
Finn had chosen a secluded table here, instead of where she’d be working if he hired her. These people were strangers compared to office acquaintances ,whom she knew because of Les, with an urge to snoop. Sinking into the same spot where she’d met Finn’s head accountant on Monday and Wednesday, a burn of anxiety made its way up her esophagus. She glanced at her phone’s home screen. No messages. He was late, and she listened for the rumble of his kickass Harley.
Heard it roar. He hadn’t forgotten their appointment.
A wave swelled through the crowd with heads turning and looking past where she huddled. Amy leaned around a pillar to spot the source of the commotion. Finn, all six-and-a-half feet of him, wore a black, tailor-fitted leather jacket and black-as-death, Kevlar pants. Sexy, yes, but she wasn’t here for a date. If and when the time was right, she’d pick an average-looking guy. Knowing how good looks fizzled made her immune.
With his helmet tucked under an elbow, Finn shifted between onlookers. The patrons tracked his rolling stride toward her.
She pulled back, instinct driving her to shield herself with the wide packet. It slipped from her hands and thumped to the floor. As she seized it, her peripheral vision caught his harsh, chiseled chin.
His intense, blue eyes stripped her of her talent for blending in. Exposed for who she was, guilty by association, he captured her distress. “You’re on the sunny side of prompt.” His ruthless face softened. “In spite of last night,” the tough guy added with more warmth in his tone.
Drat, she wasn’t immune, but she did have common sense. “I’m on time. No matter what.” Desperate for oxygen, she took a deep, slow breath and tried to release the hard grip she had on the thick envelope.
He studied her face. “What’s with the white knuckles?”
The manila envelope throbbed in her hands, begging her to come clean. “We need to talk.”
“Talk?” He chuckled and waved off the idea. His manly cologne drifted her way, but she didn’t allow it to be intoxicating
The waitress, believing he’d signaled her, breezed over. “I know your order from before.” She set down lattes, a few sugar packets, and bagels, free on Fridays.
After handing the waitress a twenty, Finn slid a bite of bagel between his lips and followed it with a sip. He looked the same except for the furrowing of his brow. “When I glanced over your qualifications, I acted on impulse.”
“I acted as my own bookkeeper. Used Excel.”
“Before you became a taxi driver.”
“Well, you used to be an Army Ranger.” She sipped and coughed from the stupid thing she said. As she dug her fingernails into the envelope, packed with incrimination, she leaned toward the grave she was digging. “I found something of Lester’s.”
“I don’t collect keepsakes.” Tapping his steel-toed boot, the big guy eyed her as if he found the Les topic troubling.
Her hands were shaking. Never good at retorts, she came up dry.
He gazed at the earth-toned ceiling. “Okay, fine. Show me in an hour?”
Out of politeness, she finished her pumpkin spice latte, purchased and not to be wasted.
In a rush he downed his last drop and withdrew the mug from his lips. “You’ll start this morning?”
It sounded like a question, but she knew it was a command. She threw him a tight smile. “Yes, thank you. I’ll balance-sheet ten clients by end of day.”
“That does it, you’re hired.” He pulled out his cell. “Brooke. Our new bookkeeper is on her way. You know Amy. Get her going on paperwork?” Another command. On the adjacent table, littered with unopened sugar packets, he stuffed two into his pocket.
“Take mine.” She pushed hers toward him.
“You think I’m a sugar junkie?” He smiled. “Need to make a delivery. Someone ran out.” He had the hot-CEO thing going. His lashes lowered, taking on a slumberous expression that set her heart to pounding.
As she stood, she took note of his quirky combo of a love-em-and-leave-em reputation and friend. Lester’s former partner extended his hand. Amy returned his all-business handshake. For a few seconds while going through the doorway with his hand low on her back, her near-dead libido hummed.
He said, “Get going on the paperwork. Catch you later at the office?”
“Later, Finn,” she echoed and quickened her edgy pace toward his corporate headquarters. Not having told him drove her restlessness up a notch. With each step she took, she weaved various scenarios. If she didn’t tell him, the facts would come out, pellet her like hail, and she’d beg back her job behind the wheel of a taxi. She settled on sharing the envelope’s contents ASAP.
Shivering in spite of traitorous low-down embers, she pulled her blazer tighter. How should she say it? Hurrying toward The Bow, the three-story corporate showplace, she decided to say nothing and let the envelope speak for itself. Rain and lightning swept away dreams, but honesty prevented a mud slide of self-respect.
Finbar Donahue. Brown, longish hair with a hint of gray interspersed, blue eyes with lines from smiling, muscle-defined arms, and broad shoulders, the bachelor had won a Congressional Medal of Honor for selflessness. How alike were Finn and Les?
Mid-stride, she stopped. The partnership between Les and Finn had not been smooth. During Finn’s single visit to their condo, he sipped a Jack Daniels at Les’s bedside. Three years passed without a return visit. Finn did not hide Les’s double-dealings in her sewing room file.
Between buildings, she spotted white caps on the lake, illuminated by a mix of sun and clouds. Stopping for a moment to find peace, she listened to the watery chug of a fisherman’s trawler. Screeching gulls dive-bombed their morning catch, and she breathed in the fragrance of moss and smoking wood.
Her phone vibrated. Digging it out, she read the ID she’d set to Hiker Nag. “Hi there, Bayliss.”
“Remember about tomorrow? You’re leading us. It’s my job to remind you.
“I anticipated your call. I’ll be there. She chuckled at the obsessive nature of the Arrowbear Hiker.
“You survived the brawl at Burlie’s, I heard.” Bayliss, married to the sheriff, knew about a crime before it hit the news. “I thought you only used the knife tool for cutting twigs for kindling.” She chuckled.
“The corkscrew came in handy.”
“You’ve got two stinking weeks before your presentation, right?” Bayliss asked, clued into her daily happenings.
“Yeah. Kira Radner. Called me. It means everything.”
“I bet you’re smiling,” Bayliss said.
“Smiling to the point of crying.”
“Finn had better hire you,” Bayliss said. “You won’t get anywhere driving a taxi. Scratch that, you know what I mean.”
“If you can’t text while driving, you sure as heck can’t stitch.”
“Ha! Did you resign from Mountain Cabs?”
“Yes, and last night I returned the taxi.”
“Good luck,” Bayliss said.
“I’ll know by the end of today,” she said, not explaining the threatening discovery and how she might start actively hating Finn for not hiring her.
“See you tomorrow..” Bayliss clicked off.
As Amy closed in on The Bow, people filed into the birdcage glass elevator. She rushed for it and settled in for the windowed ride to the third floor.
Her heart squeezed at the mountain-lake panorama with golden oaks, red-orange maples, and evergreens reflecting over blue water. Within the planned community of the “Alps of Southern California”, every property enjoyed a mountain-lake vista. Consistency ruled, courtesy of the architectural committee’s regulation of three stories max. Roofs were rust-colored tile. Timber was stained walnut, and stucco was as warm as honey butter within the synchro-bubble.
Scrunched against the glass, people exited on the second floor as they conveyed wishes for a Happy Friday. Now with breathing room, she gazed down onto Main Street’s business district. Villagers were setting up tables for the Oktoberfest, the classic wooden boat show, the Art and Wine Festival, and the Chamber of Commerce’ Fall Tour of Homes, —all reminders to get out there and live, but the sky threatened rain.
The elevator jolted to a stop where Finn’s company, Edward Smithson, Inc., took over the entire third floor. With an unobstructed view of Lake Arrowhead, grandeur slammed her. Chill bumps rose on her skin. She felt cold, so very cold and out of place.
A moment later she greeted Brooke, a swanky Smithson fixture, who handed her a new employee clipboard. “Congratulations, Mrs. Kelly,” the redhead said. Addressing her as Mrs. Kelly indicated she wasn’t an insider.
“Les and I dated a very long time, Brooke.” Amy watched the receptionist tilt her head and twist her glossy lips. “We weren’t married actually.”
“But, you took care of him.”
“I did. After the shooting.”
The awkward moment passed. Amy slid onto a chair with the new hire forms, and her hand shook. Would she be fired on the first day? Amy fidgeted with her aquamarine earring as she signed the W-2 and insurance forms as Amy Isla Kintyre.
With nothing better to do, she pulled out her cell and accessed the accounting application, Mint. She punched in numbers, entering the bookkeeping monthly salary into the software, twice that of a taxi driver. She gazed at the thick envelope on her lap. Her breath hitched, and she was pretty sure her heart stopped.
* * *
Keeping his movements steady, the motorcycle responded to Fin’s shifting weight. Protective gear snugged around him, repelling a wind-fueled shower. Through the visor of his full-faced helmet, the world flowed past in water-shattered reflections of passing cars. Unlike the bike, Fin’s mind moved in broad sweeps, responding well to a new direction. Thanks to Amy Kintyre, he coasted away from blind alleys and headed along a fresh curve.
Finn rolled through an intersection, past Arrowhead Pizza where white, wrought-iron tables dotted the patio. A flock of starlings took shelter under orange umbrellas. After traveling another klick, he pulled onto a blacktop drive under an arched sign for Straight Arrow Ranch, his dad’s assisted-living complex.
Constructed mid-century, the fully-restored cabins enjoyed a new heyday. With branches resting on roofs, lodge pines hovered with maples and oaks alongside the log structures. Upscale wicker furniture graced front porches. Finn whiffed the succulent combination of ham and cornbread. The clubhouse’s home-cooked meals were catered.
Lately, Papa, more childish, enjoyed playing tricks on the lady next door. One of these days Mick Donahue would wind toilet paper around the front porch of uppity Dolly Pugh and her disobedient cocker spaniel, Sweet Pea.
A pine-scented gust lifted damp oak leaves as Finn kicked his way through a golden carpet to Papa’s cabin. With all the fees he paid, why didn’t the dining room at least have extra sugar? As he passed old, wooden wagons and a rose garden, he took his last step from his bike and freedom. He glanced at his Rolex but willed himself not to feel time pressure. Overdue for a visit, he fisted the sugar packets and skipped up porch steps.
With his own key he unlocked the front door. “Hey, Papa.” Inside the cabin reeked of medical-grade air freshener and Lysol spray left by the cleaning crew. “A-a-achoo!” Finn sneezed, unable to hold it back.
“Bless you, Finbar,” commented a gravelly-voice. With the push of his foot, Papa turned his La-Z-Boy and faced him. His sideburns, as shaggy as white caterpillars, were due for a trim from Mobile Barber. Once tall and robust, Mick was smaller now.
“Good to see you, Papa.” Finn’s hand connected with the shoulder of his dad’s tweed jacket. As he leaned to kiss him on the cheek, he heard deep wheezing. Looking downward to see the ten-pound aluminum cylinder of oxygen, he said, “I see they gave you longer tubing.”
“Tethered, I can go fifty feet. Kind of like being henpecked, but not stomped on.” He let out a hacking guffaw.
Just out of diapers when Fin’s mom had stomped out, time elapsed between sad thoughts and floods of tears from mommy-rejection. His eyes, like replenishing water tanks, had kept his face red and raw. Abandoned at three-years old, he turned into a cold-storage locker. He and Papa recovered from the painful blow, but Finn developed a reply-all distrust of women.
His mother, Fiona, hitched herself to an Irish mob boss, Aidan Rourke, pregnant with his child. To this day, except for one-nighters, Finn sidestepped affairs of the heart. A woman trying to get close pulled him down. His body buckled under the weight of emotional intimacy. Its gravity sucked the life out of a sexual encounter, and desire slid into sludge.
“Finbar, you’re not tracking.” Papa noticed his blank expression.
Finn said, “Ugh, sorry.”
“That’s when I get the jump on you.”
“Papa, I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Your business is killing you, right?” Papa gazed out the window. “The rest of the day will be sunny.”
Finn asked, “Great. The sun came out. You keep your yard as clean as a whistle. Maybe rake a few leaves? At least get out on the front porch.” Finn placed sugar packets on the side table.
The man who’d raised him adjusted prongs of his nasal cannula. “Sugar, thanks.” His voice warmed as he studied his face. “Son, you look star-struck. Is it a woman or have you found a solution to the big drain?”
Finn edged onto a chair opposite his dad. “Both. I hired Lester’s former girlfriend. If anyone knows about the drain, it’s Amy.” The cash loss and looming financial ruin was his life. At his wit’s end, Finn made up for losses by putting in his own savings. He gave himself a mental atta-boy for questioning her abilities. She didn’t need to know she’d passed Rosenberg’s accounting test with flying colors.
“Not fair-haired Amy from Long Beach!” Papa’s expression bordered on dreamy.
“That’s the one.”
“At office parties she sat by me. I told her all I knew about Gray’s Peak and the old Cougar Trail. She’s a hiker. Pretty blonde. Wholesome girl.”
“She does nice things. I’ll give her that.”
Papa’s emphysema made it hard to mingle. “Was it true about Les?”
“You mean the bit about him streaking through the office nude? Yes.”
“Cocky bastard.” Papa snorted with a wheeze. “Funny as hell.”
Embarrassing was more like it. “When working late,” Finn said, “Les made a habit of flashing through the office.”
“Stark naked, laughing at his reflection in the windows? Wowza!” Papa wasn’t Les’s only admirer. Conservative Arrowhead residents had found Les’s capers sidesplitting.
“Wild,” Finn said, “but he turned on an aura of trust.”
“Les-talk was as solid as bedrock,” Papa agreed. “Crooked though, the way he’d maneuvered expenses in his favor. He cheated the IRS.” He sighed.
Finn said, “He’s a Kelly.” Until lately, he’d dismissed Les’s gang connection to the Waterfront Roaches. Years ago, Boss Aidan Rourke, his mother’s second husband, had invested in their company.
Papa said, “Amy never struck me as a cheater.”
Finn wasn’t sure. “Think of it this way. A poor girl takes up with a rich guy. Classic.”
“Nice girl took up with a bum, I’d say.” Papa reached for the curtain string and pulled open the pleated drapery. Sun peeked through clouds. “After your mother took off, do you know what bothered me the most?”
“Missed pillow talk. You know, conversation.” Tears formed in his dad’s eyes.
“Are you sleeping okay?” Concern coursed through his brain. “Maybe you need a woman’s companionship.”
“I tried dating. Just never fell in love again.”
“Mom never looked back.” It was as if she had dementia. Married to Rourke and soon saddled with additional offspring, she resided in an over-sized villa in Beverly Hills.
“Enough of that topic.” Finally, Papa looked up. “The bullets to Les’s brain plucked him of everything he was. He never spoke again.”
“During his surgery,” Finn said, “news seeped out. He and Amy weren’t together.”
“Yet she took care of him.” Papa’s comment came out of the blue.
Finn didn’t know his dad mulled over the similarities. “Physically, Les was there.”
“Where the heck was his family?” Papa asked.
“Les’s parents drove up from Los Angeles once.”
“When?” Papa asked.
“Before you moved here. Anyway, Amy phoned me. I joined them over at their condo.” Finn recalled the scones and tea she served. After seeing Les that way, he switched to whiskey and water.
Papa cleared his throat. “Whether his parents were there or not, it made no difference to Les.” He coughed. As soon as his breathing evened out, he said, “One of these weekends we should visit the Kelly family.”
“That’s a promise,” Finn said. “I’d like to check up on Les’s twin brother.”
Papa nodded. “I remember Liam, severely autistic.”
“To the point of nonverbal.” As a kid, Finn had looked past Liam’s ceaseless rocking and flailing arms to see intelligence. “I want see him most of all. Remember how he liked to feed the swans?”
“Liam was a sweet boy but started running away. Did you know? By now he’s in a group home for adults.” The older man said, “I’ll do some phoning.”
“You’ll find out where he is?”
“Yup,” Papa said.
Fin’s gaze connected with his dad’s, and he took comfort in it.
Papa’s lungs rattled with each breath. “Aren’t you glad you taught me how to text?” The grin on his lips spoke of his capacity for jocularity. Papa stood, and the men hugged, patted each other’s backs, and then split apart.
“Can I do anything for you before I leave?” Finn asked.
Papa nodded. “Rip the cover off my National Geographic. It’s sturdy enough.”
“Sure,” Finn said, all too familiar with his dad’s scheme to move Sweet Pea’s leavings from his yard to Dolly’s front steps. The operation required finesse— moving it without disturbing its shape. “Papa, it was dark last time.”
“Yup, and that night a star was born,” Papa said. “You sneaked out and made the perfect transfer.” Mick really wanted him to do it.
“Where’s Dolly?” Finn asked.
“Riding the senior van to the store.” Papa crinkled his nose. “Well then?”
Finn nodded. “It’s an honor to be chosen for this task.”
“You’re about to win another metal.” Papa looked at him with genuine pride.
How often did Finn do something simple but greatly rewarding? The only the negative consequence would end up on the neighbor’s shoe. His dad beamed, and Finn relished the rush it gave him.
Papa said, “I like kidding Dolly. She’s way too full of herself.”
Finn pictured the fashionable elderly woman with a mane of white cotton who rocked hot pink lipstick. “Sweet Pea sure as hell won’t tell. Dolly doesn’t know it’s us, right?”
Papa chuckled. “She wouldn’t make brownies for me if she did.”
“One of these days she’ll shove them up your ass,” Finn said. His dad’s system for having fun occasionally backfired.
“I’m one lucky papa.” His laughter filled the room. “Until next time, son.”
Heading out, Finn waved with the magazine cover. In spite of their tight bond, he didn’t always agree with Papa. His father saw good qualities in women while Finn prided himself on channeling his sixth sense. He let suspicion be his guide.
Dog that he was, chasing after Les’s bone, Amy might be sniffing along the same trail.