Authors: Ruth Langan
Return of the Prodigal Son
Dangerous and Dependable
After ten years of globe-trotting, burned-out ex-CIA operative Donovan Lassiter was ready to return home. But Donovan needed solitude to wrestle with his demons. His cabin in the wooded hills of Maryland was the perfect place for a little soul-searching—or so he thought.
Donovan’s peaceful existence was shattered when beautiful widow Andi Brady and her children moved next door. Andi needed help to prove her late husband’s innocence and knew Donovan was the only man for the job. But could he focus on the case when he was in danger—of losing his heart?
onovan Lassiter looked up from his computer and swore when the phone rang, breaking his concentration. Whoever was calling would just have to talk to his machine. He was in no mood for pleasant conversation.
“Donovan? Champ Mackenzie here. I know you’re there. Pick up the phone.”
Donovan was startled by the voice from his past. He and Champion Mackenzie had been college roommates. They hadn’t seen each other for more than ten years.
He pushed away from his desk and began rummaging around the room in search of his phone. Still muttering, he tossed aside a towel, a shirt and three stray socks, before finding his phone, tucked into a box of books.
“Champ? How’d you find me?”
“You’re not the only one with Washington sources, old buddy. It wasn’t easy, but I called in a few markers and found out where you were holed up. I’m at a gas station in Prattsville. I’m coming up.”
Donovan gave a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “Now’s not a good time, Champ.”
“I don’t give a rat’s…” The voice paused, then said, “I’m coming up, Donovan. I need to talk to you.”
Something in his tone had Donovan relenting. “When you turn off the highway, it’ll look like nothing but a dirt path. Take the path to the left and you’ll come to a gravel drive. Follow that up the hill and you’ll see my place back in the woods.”
“I’ll be there in five.”
“It’ll take you more like fifteen. I’ll be waiting.” Donovan hung up the phone and made his way to the kitchen. The coffee he’d made himself at dawn was now the consistency of mud. He tossed it down the drain and started a fresh pot, then hunted through the cupboard for a clean cup.
When he heard the sound of his old friend’s car, he walked to the door and stepped out onto the porch.
His former roommate had put on weight, but Donovan recognized him instantly as he stepped from the car and made his way up the steps. He found himself grinning. “You wear your success well, Champ. Congratulations. A millionaire by the age of thirty.”
“Didn’t I tell you I would?” Champion Mackenzie grabbed Donovan by the shoulders and studied him. “What’s with the beard and ponytail? You afraid somebody might recognize you?”
Donovan laughed and touched a hand to the shaggy dark beard that covered his chin. “I’d forgotten about this.” He led the way inside. “I’ve been meaning to shave.”
Champ paused on the threshold and stared around at the boxes littering the floor. “Just like you’ve been meaning to unpack one of these days?”
“It comes from years of living out of a duffel.” Donovan shoved aside a stack of newspapers and made room on the sofa. “I’ve only been here a couple of weeks.”
“A month, according to my sources. But who’s counting?” Champ remained standing while he looked toward the computer on the desk by the window. “I heard you’d left the C.I.A. and were holed up in the hills writing a book.”
“I’ve left government service.” As always, Donovan refused to acknowledge what that service had been. The things he’d done, the secrets he’d uncovered for the past ten years, would go to the grave with him.
He started toward the kitchen, with his friend following. “A publisher has shown some interest in my proposed book about international crime and the way governments deal with it.” He filled two cups and handed one to Champ. “Something tells me you didn’t go to all the trouble of finding me and coming up here just to talk about my book.” He gave his old friend a steady look. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”
Champ sipped his coffee before shaking his head. “Not me. My sister. I don’t know if you remember Andi.”
Donovan sat down at the table and stretched out his long legs, vaguely seeing in his mind a dark-haired high-school girl who had dropped by the dorm on a quick visit with friends. “If I did, I’ve forgotten. What’s the trouble?”
“Her husband, Adam Brady, was killed in a plane crash along with his partner, Neil Summerville. It went down off the Maryland shore after taking off from National. The authorities suspected foul play but couldn’t prove it. There wasn’t enough of the plane or its occupants to make a case. Not long after that, the bank and business records revealed that Adam had systematically defrauded dozens of wealthy clients in a pyramid stock deal that went sour.”
Donovan crossed his arms over his chest. “Greed. The driving force behind most crime, whether it’s the plain, old, garden-variety theft, or international theft on a grand scale. It’s always greed.” He looked up. “So what do you want from me?”
“I knew my brother-in-law, Donovan. I’d have trusted him with my fortune.”
“So did a lot of other people, apparently.”
Champion shook his head. “He wasn’t a criminal. I know it. My sister knows it. But I want the rest of the world to know it, too. I want you to clear his good name.”
“What makes you think I can?”
Champ smiled. “I know…we both know that you have the kind of contacts that can give you access to information that the rest of us mortals can only dream of.”
There was no answering smile. “Why is this so important?”
“Because Andi has two little kids whose hearts are broken. For their sake, I want their father’s good name back.”
He saw a look come into his old friend’s eyes. A look he’d seen so many times through the years.
Donovan stood up and walked to the window, staring at the wooded hills that he hoped would bring him the solace that had eluded him for so long. “You know what buttons to push, don’t you, Champ?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m desperate. I love Andi and the kids so much, I’d do anything for them.”
Donovan turned back, arms over his chest, deep in thought.
Champion studied this man who had once been his closest friend. It hadn’t been an easy friendship. Donovan Lassiter held everyone at arm’s length. Even his own family. It was as though the brutal loss of his father at an early age had made him afraid to trust anyone.
He’d aged in the years since college. His body toughened by years of work abroad; his face even more angular. The look of deep pain was still there in those midnight-blue Lassiter eyes. In fact, it seemed even more pronounced.
Donovan gave him a hard, steady look. “What happens if I find out that Andi’s husband was, in fact, a thief?”
Champ’s voice deepened. “Then she and the kids will have to live with it.”
Donovan continued to study him a moment longer. “I’ll want access to all the information you have. You’ll hold nothing back.”
“It’s yours.” Champ took a step toward him and held out his hand. “I’ll owe you big time.”
“We’ll talk about it after I’ve had a look at the facts. Maybe I’ll ask for your firstborn in payment.”
Surprised at the unexpected humor, Champion gave a grunt of laughter.
As they walked to the door, Champ suddenly turned. “Who owns that house down the hill?”
“I do. It came with the package.”
“Is there anybody living in it?”
Donovan shook his head. “I haven’t bothered to contact a Realtor yet, but I figure I’ll rent it out when I need money.”
“Name your price and I’ll write you a check now.”
It was Donovan’s turn to be surprised. “You want to live up here in the hills?”
“Not me. My sister and her kids. Her son’s having a bad time of it at school. He’s being taunted by his classmates. Been in a lot of fights lately. Andi says his grades have gone from good to failing. I think a chance to get away over their summer break might be just what he needs. What they all need.”
Donovan thought about it a moment before nodding. “Okay. As long as they understand that my place is off-limits.”
His old friend gave another lingering look at the clutter of boxes. “Don’t worry. I’ll warn them that some crazy old bearded recluse lives up on the hill. They’ll give you a wide berth.”
He whipped out a checkbook and signed it. “Fill in any amount you want.”
Donovan grinned. “Must be nice.”
“It is. You ought to try it. You know there’s always a place in my company for you.”
“Thanks, my friend. But no thanks. We both know I’m not company material.”
As Champion turned away he had another thought and paused. “I ran into your brother Micah the other day. He seemed to think you were still out of the country.”
Donovan flushed. “I…haven’t had time to let my family know I’m back.”
“Yeah. Well, make time. Before they hear it from somebody else.”
Donovan nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
“One more thing.” Champ tugged on his friend’s ponytail. “You might want to consider a shave and a haircut before you head down to civilization. I don’t think the Lassiter family is ready for a glimpse of the wild mountain man you’ve become, my friend.”
“Hi, Pop.” Cameron Lassiter slammed into the kitchen and unceremoniously dropped his attaché case on the kitchen table, along with his jacket and tie.
His grandfather, stirring something on the stove, shot him a look that had him backing up to retrieve everything. Though he was now a successful lawyer living in a bachelor apartment above the garage, his grandfather still had the ability to make him feel like a careless boy.
He stood, juggling the coat and tie in one hand, the briefcase in the other. “What’s for dinner?”
“Spaghetti and meat sauce. And salad, if someone—” Kieran Lassiter swiveled his head, giving him that famous meaningful glance “—is willing to help make it.”
“I guess I could. Just let me get rid of all this.” Cam walked away, returning minutes later with the sleeves of his white shirt rolled above the elbows. As he opened the refrigerator and began assembling the salad fixings, he nodded over his shoulder. “We’re eating in the dining room tonight? What’s the occasion?”
“Micah and Pru are coming.” Kieran smiled at the mere mention of his eldest grandson and his new bride. With her sweetness and calm demeanor, she’d become a welcome addition to their large and rowdy family. “I thought it’d be nice to eat in the big room.”
“How about Bren?”
Kieran smiled. “She just called and said she’d be right over. Her committee meeting up on the Hill was postponed.”
Cam shook his head as he tore lettuce and sliced big garden beefsteak tomatoes into a salad bowl. “It’s still hard to believe my bossy sister is a congresswoman.”
“So it is.” Kieran paused in his work. Smiled. “Though I’m not surprised. Our Mary Brendan was always in the thick of every debate in this house.”
“She always got the best of you, Pop.”
The old man’s smile faded. “She was just a wee girl. She had a way of tugging at my heart.”
“And didn’t she know it.” Cam was still chuckling when the object of their discussion came bustling in, dropping her briefcase on the big trestle table. Cam waited a beat, knowing it was only a matter of time before their grandfather shot her that familiar look.
He wasn’t disappointed.
“Sorry, Pop.” She snatched up her case and brushed a kiss over the old man’s cheek as she hurried to the other room. Minutes later she was back, her suit jacket gone, her sleeves pushed over her elbows, ready to join in the kitchen chores just as Micah and his bride, Prudence, arrived, arm in arm.