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Authors: Tamra Rose

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BOOK: To Love and Protect
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"Nice place you have, by the way."

"Thanks. I take it there were no masked ninjas running around my property?"

"Not when I drove by, which was three different times.  But I don't think that means you should forget this incident, either. Someone's up to something."

"I agree. I'm just not sure what steps I should be taking."

"Are you working tomorrow?"

"Eight to five."

"I'm on duty from twelve to eight. How about if I come by your house around seven, and you can fill out a police report. That way everything will be on record, and whoever's on duty will know to drive by your place during their shift just to keep an eye on things."

Shelley thought for a few moments about the prospect police cars driving back and forth in front of her home at various intervals. Part of the reason she liked living where she did was the privacy it afforded. Would she really want to be caught walking to her mailbox for the morning paper in a nightshirt and clogs, her hair all askew? But then two words came to her mind: WATCH OUT. Perhaps she needed to heed the warning.

"Okay," she conceded. "It's probably the best thing for me to do."

"Then I'll see you around seven tomorrow."

"Here she is," Dave announced somewhat breathlessly as he carried Carly out to the reception area. He tried to appear at ease with his armload, but Shelley could tell he was straining under Carly's eighty pounds of sinewy muscle. He handed her to Matt, who took her effortlessly in his arms as though she weighed no more than the terrycloth towel she was partially wrapped in.

"Bye, Carly," Shelley said as she scratched her behind the ears. "I'll be seeing you next week when you come back for your exam."

Carly nuzzled her hand appreciatively, but it was clear she only had eyes for Matt.  Not that Shelley could blame her.

Dusk was setting in when Shelley pulled her truck into her driveway at quarter after eight. The sun was setting behind the fields that cradled her house, and on cool, early autumn evenings like this, she often tried to imagine what it must have been like one-hundred years earlier when families lived off the land, timing their harvest around the good fortune of the sun. Soon it would disappear an hour earlier with daylight savings time. Eventually, darkness would set in by five, and Shelley would keep her living room toasty warm with her fireplace, just like those before her. Of course, she also had central heating to kick in where the fireplace left off, but the comforting smell of wood burning on a cold day still had all the cozy nostalgia of a Currier & Ives greeting card.

It was eerily quiet as she hopped out of her truck and headed for the porch, especially without her dogs there to greet her as usual with their happy whimpers and wagging tails. But Shelley had decided it was too much of a risk to let them roam freely in her absence while someone was potentially out to harm her. Instead, they would have to make do with the small, fenced-in, run-out area that opened up from the back of the house. She shuddered at the thought of someone trying to devastate her through her pets. It only confirmed her belief that she was doing the right thing by filing a police report and allowing the house to be watched.

As she walked up the porch steps, her thoughts elsewhere, Shelley suddenly stopped in her tracks and gasped. A shadow stirred on one of the two chairs to the right of the door. Her knees wobbling, Shelley swallowed hard and tried to decide in an instant whether to run or stand her ground.

"Hi, Shelley," Marge said in her slightly nasal voice.

Shelley let out a sigh of relief. But only for a moment. "Marge, what are you doing here? You scared me half to death!"

Marge stood up, looking even stringier and disheveled than usual. "I'm sorry I frightened you. I came by to see if you wanted to have tea."

"At eight-thirty at night?" Shelley replied, her voice tense. In the past, Marge had been a minor nuisance. But right now, she was a major annoyance, especially in light of the recent scare campaign. Could Marge be behind it, she wondered? Shelley had never felt unsafe around her neighbor before, but now she found herself wishing her dogs were outside. "I'm just going to let the dogs out," she said as the thought entered her mind.

"How come they're in? Aren't they usually out?"

Not wanting to answer Marge directly, Shelley murmured something unintelligible as she unlocked the door and the three dogs immediately tumbled out. They pranced around her, eagerly waiting to be petted, then ran off into the yard to expel some energy. Don't go far, Shelley silently thought to them.

"How's the plant I gave you?" Marge asked, her small eyes narrowing in on Shelley like a rodent zeroing in on a cube of cheese.

Shelley's mind worked quickly to formulate a response. "I'm sorry, Marge. A raccoon or something must have gotten into it before I had a chance to bring it inside." She studied Marge's face for an indication of guilt, but none was forthcoming.

"Oh." Marge managed a weak smile, adding, "It wasn't such a great plant anyway."

"No − it was very nice," Shelley said, finding herself once again feeling sorry for Marge.

"Herb said I should just quit bothering you."

"Really? He said that?"

"He doesn't understand what it's like to feel alone sometimes. He has the people he works with, not to mention his computer friends."

"His computer friends?"

Marge nodded. "He'll spend hours on the Internet at night, talking to people. Of course they're mostly women, but Herb says they're just friends."

Yeah, thought Shelley, and they probably have names like Chesty Galore and Lips Dynamo. Leave it to Herb to pursue a cyber affair. "Well, Marge, there's no reason why you can't get involved in interesting things yourself. Why don't you take a class or volunteer somewhere? Even a few hours a week would get you out of the house and meeting new people."

Marge shrugged. "I'm not really good at anything."

"That's ridiculous."

"Well, that's what Herb's always telling me. He compares me to other women a lot. Especially you." As Shelley's eyes widened, Marge added, "He'll ask me, 'Why don't you keep yourself up like Shelley?' or, 'Why don't you do something with your life like her?'"

A chill ran the length of Shelley's spine. Little had she known that she was a popular topic of conversation at the Henderson residence. "Forget about what Herb says. You have to make changes for yourself, not anyone else."

"I don't know where to begin."

"I think I have the latest course schedule for Fairfax Community College somewhere in the house. I'll look for it later and then drop it off within the next day or two. I'm pretty sure they have a class or two in botany."

"That's a fancy word for plant stuff, right?"

Shelley felt as though she were dealing with a little child. "Right," she replied patiently. But her unease returned when she wondered whether Marge was a little kid with a big, scary secret.

"What I'd really like to do is be a hairdresser."

Shelley squelched her initial reaction to laugh out loud, since the eagerness in Marge's face indicated she was serious. But the unwashed, shapeless hair that Marge peered out from under made Shelley a bit pessimistic about her career choice. "Well, uh, great, Marge. You should look into it at least. How did you get here, by the way?"

"I walked."

"You walked a mile and a half?" Shelley replied, trying to hide her discomfort. Normally, she would have insisted on giving Marge a ride home, but now there was a question mark in the back of her mind. Was she safe being alone with her? For that matter, was she safe with her right
now?

"Rusty! Bella! Dozer!" Shelley called nervously.

Several moments later, all three dogs ran up to the porch. They were followed by the sound of tires crunching over rocks.

"Look, it's the police," Marge said as the car slowly came down the driveway.

In the dim light still left over from the last wisps of the setting sun, Shelley recognized the tall, lean figure of Sergeant Dan Rinaldi as he stepped out of the car.

"Evening, Shelley," he said warmly.

Sergeant Rinaldi was a thirty-year veteran of the police department, and Shelley and Ted had socialized often with him and his wife, Joyce.

"Hi, Dan." Shelley held her breath, hoping he had the sense not to reveal the true nature of his visit in Marge's presence.

"I was just driving by and I thought that was you on the porch. I figured I'd stop in and see how you and all your critters are doing."

Shelley smiled. "We're fine. This is Marge Henderson, by the way."

"Henderson ... Henderson ... Oh, you live down the road a bit, don't you?"

"Yes, Sir," Marge said formally as though she had been called into the principal's office.

"Actually, Dan, are you heading down that way? Marge walked over here earlier, but it's getting dark now and I don't think she should be walking home alone."

"Sure, I'll give you a ride, Mrs. Henderson. Why don't you go wait in the car, and I'll be right over."

As Marge followed Sergeant Rinaldi’s instructions, he came up on the porch. "Matt told me what happened, Shelley, and I just want you to know we're keeping a close eye on things for you."

"Thanks, Dan. You know, maybe I'm just overreacting to everything. What if it was just some kids playing a prank?”

Sergeant Rinaldi was silent for a few moments. "Could be," he said in his usual laconic manner. "But even if that's true, I would hardly say you're overreacting. You and I both know that if Ted were here, he'd be pressing for a SWAT team to case the property just to make sure you're safe."

Shelley smiled as she shook her head. "He would, wouldn't he."

"Yup."

That was Ted, she thought. Always looking out for family − especially her. Shelley knew that she was a strong woman who could take care of herself, but it was still always nice knowing someone loved her enough to make her well-being a top priority. It was a feeling that died with Ted, though she felt she had a glimpse of it once again with Matt's genuine concern. But was he simply just doing his job? Perhaps she shouldn't see it as any more than that, she realized.

Sergeant Rinaldi looked back at the car. "Marge Henderson a regular visitor here?"

Shelley started to roll her eyes in exasperation, then caught herself. "She'll stop by every now and then. I think she's kind of lonely."

"And kind of strange, too, if you ask me."

"What makes you say that? Do you know something about her?"

"Just that Hazel Burns, who lives about three miles in the other direction from Marge, had to ask her to stop coming by about a year ago."

Once again, Shelley felt uneasy. Especially since it was a year ago that Marge had started showing up at
her
home. "Why? What happened?"

Sergeant Rinaldi shrugged his angular shoulders, which towered over Shelley's head. "She got to be a nuisance. Made Hazel feel really uncomfortable. Said she came out of the shower one day stark naked, and there was Marge, standing in the living room with a potted plant in her hand. Scared the Bejeezus out of poor Hazel. Guess she doesn't have much to do during the day when her kids are in school, so she spends her time annoying the neighbors instead."

"You don't think ..."

"That she could be the one who left that message for you? I don't know, Shelley. Any complaint I've heard about her before has been harmless. But maybe she's getting deeper into some kind of, I don't know,
weirdness.
Do you want me to question her?"

BOOK: To Love and Protect
13.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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