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Authors: Delores Fossen

Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General

The Christmas Clue

BOOK: The Christmas Clue
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DELORES FOSSEN
 
THE CHRISTMAS CLUE
 

TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID
PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND

 

To Beth. Thank you for just being you.

Chapter One
 
 

Cibolo, Texas

 

Cass Harrison tightened her grip on the tranquilizer gun and waited.

Her heartbeat pounded in her ears, and she could feel every nerve in her body. She wanted to get out of there fast. But she couldn’t. Because this confrontation was the first step.

And because Agent Matt Christensen could save her life.

If he didn’t kill her first, that is.

After all, she’d broken into the home of a federal agent. Not the safest thing she had ever done. Hopefully, it would be worth the risk.

Standing at the window of his dining room, Cass made another check of the massive backyard so she could reassure herself one more time that she hadn’t been followed. It seemed clear. She prayed it would stay that way.

Outside, she could hear the icy December wind assault the trees. No traffic noise, though. Agent Christensen’s house was only twenty minutes from San Antonio, but there were no signs of the city here. His white limestone lodge-style house was nestled in the center of five heavily wooded acres, a location that had been a blessing and a curse. The seclusion had allowed her to leave her car a mile away on a nearly deserted side street and sneak into the house sight unseen. But the semi-isolation meant there’d be no one to help if something went wrong.

She was literally on her own.

Of course, it’d been that way for months now.

“Thank you,” Cass mumbled when she finally heard the cue that she’d been waiting for—the metallic grind of the garage door opening, then the sound of Agent Christensen entering through his mudroom.

There was a rustle of movement, and Cass listened as he made his way to the other side of the house. To his bedroom, where he would hopefully take off his standard-issue semiautomatic so it wouldn’t be readily available for him to try to use on her. He turned on some music. Not loud. But maybe loud enough to muffle her footsteps on the hardwood floors.

Before she could change her mind, Cass slipped out of the dining room and into the tiny kitchen. Keeping close to the wall, she went into the hall and toward his bedroom. She tried not to think of what might happen once she confronted him.

Maybe he would listen to her.
Maybe.

And if he didn’t…well, Cass had studied what she could access of his official records, and at six-foot-two and one-hundred-and-ninety pounds, Agent Matt Christensen could easily pulverize her.

Forcing that unsettling thought aside, Cass inched toward his bedroom. The only sounds were the steady pulsing rhythm of a bluesy saxophonist whining a familiar Christmas carol. Sax music and Dean Koontz paperbacks scattered all over the house. Under different circumstances, she might have wondered what else Matt Christensen and she had in common.

After a mumbled prayer, she eased open the door. Just a fraction.

And came face-to-face with Matt Christensen.

Or rather with the gun he stuck right in her face.

Cass nearly screamed from the surprise, but she tamped down any startled response and kept a firm grip on her own weapon, such that it was. Not easy to manage with her suddenly trembling hands. And, mercy, her knees were shaking.

Despite all her trembling and shaking, she had no trouble seeing the man behind that gun. Matt Christensen wore black pants and a white shirt that he’d unbuttoned.

He looked one hundred percent lethal.

His bio had been dead-on. He was formidable, and his pretty-boy looks didn’t diminish that. He was blond-haired, blue-eyed, toned and naturally tanned. And because his shirt was open, she could also see that he had muscled pecs and abs.

Even though he was a prime specimen of a man, Cass didn’t dare let that distract her. Not a chance. This situation could easily get out of hand even more than it already was.

“Well?” he said.

Definitely not a greeting but more like a challenge. It also had a tinge of a Texas drawl and more than a bit of dismissal to it. If he were even remotely concerned about having an armed intruder walk in on him, he didn’t show it.

“I need to talk to you,” Cass managed to say.

He lifted his left eyebrow. “And you thought aiming a tranquilizer gun at me was the easiest way to do that?”

“The safest,” she corrected. “I’m not here to hurt you, only to talk. I couldn’t meet with you at your office. Not with their security measures. And the office, assignments, your city apartment and this house seem to be the only places you ever go. You really don’t have much of a life,” she added in a mumble.

“I suppose this is your idea of getting me a life?”

“In a way. Just think of this as an early Christmas present.” Cass backed out into the hallway, to put some physical distance between them. It didn’t help. Matt Christensen still seemed to be right in her face.

“How did you get into my house?” he asked.

“I picked the lock. It’s a little skill that I’ve unfortunately had to learn to stay alive. It also helped that your security system wasn’t on. I guess this isn’t a high crime area out here. By the way, I’m Cass Harrison—”

“Even with the dye job and the bad haircut, I know who you are,” he interrupted. “Cassandra Leeann Harrison. Age twenty-eight. Last known residence, San Antonio. I’ve seen your pictures at least a dozen times in the newspapers and on wanted flyers.”

She resisted the urge to try to smooth her fingers through what he considered her bad cut. And it
was
bad. Being on the run from the authorities didn’t leave much time for visits to the hair salon.

“You’re an heiress. Or at least you used to be. Now, you’re a rich fugitive from justice,” he continued. “I know of at least two federal agencies who want to question you.”

“What they want is to put me in prison for something I didn’t do.”

“You didn’t assist your former boyfriend, Dominic Cordova, with his illegal transfer of funds to a South American bank account? And you didn’t murder his business associate when he discovered that illegal transfer?”

There it was. The accusations in a nutshell. A simple cockily delivered summary of something that hadn’t been so simple. It’d been earth-shattering, life altering. It’d felt as if someone had crushed her heart.

“No.” Cass shook her head. “I didn’t have any idea Dominic would set me up to take the fall for those charges. But it doesn’t matter now. All that matters is I finally get to clear my name, and you’re going to help me do it.”

He rolled those deep blue eyes. “I have no intention of helping you evade these charges.”

“I think you will, once you hear what I have to say. I believe there’s evidence at Dominic Cordova’s estate in West Texas that will exonerate me.”

“So?” he challenged.

“So, the Justice Department has put Dominic off-limits.” It wasn’t a guess, either. Cass had kept very close tabs on Dominic, and she didn’t care much for the authorities’ change in attitude toward him.

“Political alliances make strange bedfellows,” Christensen countered. “The department considers you the bad guy, Ms. Harrison. Not Dominic Cordova. These days, he’s the man they’re backing to help them bring down criminals that they consider to be a lot worse.”

“There isn’t anyone worse than Dominic. And as I said, there’s evidence at his estate that’ll prove that the Justice Department can’t trust him. I want you to use your training and your contacts to help me get that evidence.”

His mouth quivered, threatening to smile. “I’m a federal agent, not a mercenary. Nor an idiot.”

“I don’t trust idiots or mercenaries. I’ve been burned by a few of the latter who’ve tried to sell me out for the bounty that Dominic has on my head.”

“But you’d trust me?” he fired back.

She huffed, and made sure it conveyed “not on your life.”

Matt Christensen huffed, too. “Let’s get something straight, lady. I’m not going to risk my career, my butt or anything else to help you. In fact, I’m going to call the cops so they can come and get you.”

“You can’t call them.” Cass raced after him, caught on his arm and somehow managed to get him to stop. Touching practically every part of his body, she squeezed past him and into the corridor just off the kitchen so she could step in front of him and meet his gaze head-on.

“Just listen to me,” she bargained. “And at the end of my explanation, if you still want to call the police, then I won’t stop you.”

It was a massive lie. A necessary one designed to buy her some time. She
would
stop him. Someway, somehow. Because an arrest would almost certainly lead to her death. Dominic or one of his hired guns would see to it that she wasn’t around to accuse him of the things he’d done. In the eleven-and-a-half months she’d been on the run, there’d been almost a half-dozen attempts on her life. In prison she’d be a sitting duck.

Matt Christensen studied her a moment with eyes that were somehow sizzling and cool at the same time. It wasn’t a quick assessment. In the depths of all those shades of blue, Cass could see the battle he was having with himself. A battle about whether or not to listen.

“Start talking,” he ordered.

Cass knew a gift when she saw it, and she didn’t waste time. “For months I’ve been trying to figure out how to prove I’m innocent. I finally got a break from an unexpected source, a former cop named Collena Drake. The police busted an illegal adoption ring, and she’s been going through hundreds of files related to the case. I heard through the grapevine that she’d seen Dominic’s name as an adopter.”

“And this is somehow linked to the evidence that’ll exonerate you?” He couldn’t have possibly sounded more disinterested.

Cass nodded and suddenly wished she’d rehearsed this. “Look, what I’m about to tell you might be a little…shocking.”

He stared at her.

“Right,” Cass concluded. “You’re not easily shocked.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, here goes. I called Collena Drake, and I pretended to be a servant at Dominic’s estate. I said I was concerned about a child that Dominic had recently adopted. Ms. Drake confirmed that Dominic had indeed adopted one of the babies in question. She’d yet to confirm that the process was illegal, but it was highly suspect. Because, believe me, Dominic wouldn’t qualify for a normal adoption. There are all kinds of skeletons dangling in his closet.”

“A baby,” he repeated. He shrugged. A dismissal sort of gesture that wasn’t as effective as his other brash expressions. Because while his shoulder might have been shrugging off her question, his eyes were demanding more info. “Why would you bring this to me? If you think the adoption was illegal, you should be informing the police.”

Oh, this was about to get messy. Very messy. “Remember Vanessa Jordan?”

Matt Christensen blinked. “Yeah. Of course, I do. It’d be hard to forget my ex-girlfriend. She’s dead. And what could she possibly have to do with you or this visit?”

Cass knew that the woman had everything to do with it. “You didn’t stay in contact after she broke off things with you.”

“No. And it was by mutual agreement.”

She braced herself to deliver what he wasn’t going to want to hear. “Vanessa had a baby six months ago. She gave birth the day she died.”

Another shrug, and it was even less effective than the last one. But then, it had to be. The ice man routine wouldn’t stand a chance against news like that. He pinned his narrowed gaze to hers. “You believe Vanessa’s baby was part of this illegal adoption ring?”

“Yes. And more. Let’s do the math. Thirteen months ago, Vanessa and you broke up. Then, she gave birth seven months later.”

Matt Christensen mumbled some profanity under his breath. Really bad profanity that didn’t seem to be steeped in surprise or anger. It all seemed to be aimed at her.

“Okay, let’s do some more math,” he commented. He casually propped his shoulder against the wall and angled his body so they were directly facing each other again. “Vanessa could have gotten pregnant right after we broke up, and then she could have delivered a preemie. It happens all the time.”

“Yes. But according to the records that Collena Drake found, the baby weighed over eight pounds when she was born. Hardly the birth weight of a preemie.”

“What are you saying?” Christensen snapped. But he didn’t wait for Cass to answer. “That the child is mine? No way in hell, because Vanessa was on the pill the whole time we were together. And we were careful because neither of us was ready to become parents.”

Since there was probably nothing she could say that would convince him, Cass decided it was time for the more direct, visual-aid approach. She motioned toward the pocket of her brown leather jacket. “I’m going to reach inside, so don’t shoot first and assume I’m going for a real gun.”

Only after he nodded—a gesture laced with reluctance and more of that cocky attitude—Cass slipped her hand inside and took out the picture. A picture that had not been easy to obtain. She’d had to pay off Dominic’s head groundskeeper to use a camera with a long-range lens.

“Vanessa was a redhead. Like me, before the dye job and the bad haircut. She also had green eyes. A Scots-Irish-dominated gene pool.” She aimed her index finger at him. “Then, there’s you. If you introduced yourself as Thor Svenson and claimed you were of Viking descent, people would believe you in a heartbeat.”

With that, she handed him the photograph, and after more of that mumbled profanity, he took it.

Cass watched as his suspicious gaze eased away from hers and skimmed over the round-faced baby sitting in a stroller in a garden. But soon the skimming stopped, and his attention speared on to that image.

In the photograph, the angle of the sun was just right so that it glistened off the child’s loose curls that haloed around her head.

Blond curls.

And coupled with the little girl’s clearly visible piercing blue eyes, Cass figured that Matt Christensen wouldn’t be shrugging again anytime soon.

This wasn’t something he could shrug off.

Because he’d no doubt just realized that he was looking at the face of a child he hadn’t even known existed.

His baby daughter.

BOOK: The Christmas Clue
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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