Federal Agent James Montgomery is used to getting what he wants. Right now, he wants to find out what Victoria Connor knows about her grandfather's illegal activities. Prepared to do whatever it takes, he plunges into her life with single-minded determination, intent on gaining the trust she is so reluctant to give. But, when his compassionate suspect challenges him to face the past that still haunts him, he discovers he has much more to learn from her than he first assumed.
James Montgomery, considered by most to be a hard man to please, wanted to smile—and would have if he hadn’t been so tired. “Opportunities like this don’t just happen in our line of work, you know,” he said to his partner, Tyler Bains.
Victoria Connor was moving into the cottage, and it suited his needs perfectly. James would use her to get closer to the old man and the property.
He peered through the high-powered telescope. “They won’t discover who I am until it’s too late.”
He scanned the area across the lake, focusing on the Connors’ property, which included an old white farmhouse on the hillside and a little cottage closer to the lake’s edge. His trained gaze wandered over the surroundings, memorizing details. Grand oak trees towered over the well-kept two-story home. Several acres of mowed lawn ran alongside wilder terrain.
Beyond the house, smaller trees had grown up where crops had once been cultivated. The land probably hadn’t been farmed in several years, maybe even since the rivers had been dammed more than thirty years ago, and the expansive manmade lake had been filled with water.
He focused on the cottage. The evening sun gave the cedar shingles a cozy, warm look. A light breeze knocked around a set of wind chimes hanging on the weather-worn porch. He studied the layout of the vacant cottage noting the placement of windows and doors, and then his focus switched to the farmhouse. He scanned its two-story frame, also observing possible exits.
He stood from the telescope and stretched tall. He passed calloused hands through his close-cropped hair and then scrubbed them over his face, as he fought the fatigue that plagued him.
He looked at Tyler. “I’ll go in undercover as a handyman. The woman will be used as an extra excuse to hang around.” James stooped, and peered through the telescope once more.
“She’s due to arrive this weekend. That will give you a few days to set up a plan. Do you think she knows what her grandfather’s doing? He could be bringing her in to help him.”
“I assume she knows. They’re both under suspicion until proven otherwise.” James considered each of his options and the best way to approach the suspects. He squared his shoulders and turned to face Tyler once again. “I’ll spend time with her. I’ll make her trust me.”
“You’d better be careful. You’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face. Perfect age for you, too. What are you now? Thirty-five? Thirty-six? She’ll be twenty-nine in a few months.”
“I know how old she is and how old I am. Victoria Connor is a means to an end, Ty, nothing more.” He ground out the words, punctuating his impatience with his tone.
Ty held up his hands. “I only meant that you need to be careful. Using her may make it more difficult to get to the bottom of this. If you get attached to her—”
“I know what I’m doing.” No suspect—beautiful or not—would deter him from his goal.
“Well, just remember if you can’t get close enough to her. I’d be happy to take over.”
“Not a chance, Ty. She’s mine.”
Victoria woke suddenly to a familiar ringtone playing on her cell phone. The tune shrilled in the early morning stillness until she connected the call. “Hi Ash. What time is it?”
“Just past six.” Ashley’s usual bubbly voice came across clear.
“You are such an early bird, girl.” Victoria rubbed her sleepy eyes, willing them to stay open.
Morning sunlight streamed through the window above her head. She yawned and stretched stiff muscles, taking in her new surroundings. She had arrived at the cottage late last night, a day earlier than planned, and her back and shoulder ached from the abuse of sleeping on the hard floor with only a sleeping bag.
She stifled a groan as she lifted her head. She wished Gramps had kept the place furnished, but he had chosen to sell off the furniture piece by piece. Well, at least this way, she could have her own bed to sleep in and her own furnishings in the place.
Fluffing her pillow with one hand and holding the phone with the other, Victoria listened to her friend.
“I miss you already.”
“I’m only a few hours away. You’re still coming to visit in a few weeks right?” Victoria rested her head on the pillow as her voice echoed across the near empty room.
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss the chance to spend a weekend at the lake with you. I wouldn’t know what it would be like to have a whole summer off.”
“It is a nice perk of being a teacher,” Victoria admitted. “As much as I love the kids, I do look forward to the summers.”
“I still can’t believe how you lucked into the opening at Chisolm Elementary. It’s so close to the cottage, it’s just perfect. Not to mention the beautiful Virginia scenery, and you’re close enough to the Blue Ridge Parkway to go whenever you want.”
“It was meant to be. I loved spending my summers here while growing up, and I’ve always wanted to live here. And now, here I am!”
“Have you seen Gramps yet?”
“Not yet. He’s out of town and isn’t due back home until tomorrow.”
“Are you sure he’s OK?” Ashley asked for the thousandth time.
“I think so. I pestered Dr. Howard with no less than a dozen phone calls. He assured me the damage was minimal.”
When Gramps had called with the news of his stroke, Victoria resolved not to leave him alone any longer. Stubborn as ever, he hadn’t wanted her underfoot, but welcomed the idea of her moving into the cottage where they would each still have plenty of privacy, but also be separated by only a few hundred yards in case he needed her.
With her parents retired and off traveling in Europe, her sister married and chasing around three year old twins, and her brother and his wife way out in Arizona, she suited the job the best. Single and unattached, she had much more freedom than her siblings.
“I can’t wait to see you. I’m going to take my run early today. What about you?” Ashley brought Victoria back from her thoughts.
“I don’t know. I’m a little sore from sleeping on the floor. I might pass today. I miss running together already.”
“Me too. I’ll talk to you later, OK?” Ash disconnected without a good-bye.
Ashley’s voice had wavered, and guilt nudged Victoria for leaving her best friend back in the city without a roommate.
She shoved away the guilt, knowing deep in her heart she had made the right decision.
Unable to wait any longer, she crawled out of her makeshift bed and eased into the bathroom. After taking care of the necessities, she looked into the mirror. She ignored her sleep infested eyes and smoothed down her tousled hair the best she could, absently wondering where she’d packed the hairbrush.
Victoria grabbed the bathroom doorknob and froze. A set of heavy footsteps echoed across the empty living room. She stood still and held her breath, hoping she’d imagined the sound. But, more came. A scraping noise and a cough came next. A cold chill raised goose bumps, and fear threatened to overtake her rational thoughts.
She forced herself to stay calm. Who could it be? Gramps was out of town and not due back until tomorrow, and she didn’t know of any recent guests that may still have a key.
She had left her cell phone in the bedroom, but even if she could get to it without being seen, how long would it take Sheriff Randolph to drive out here? Would he even bother responding?
Please Lord, let me know what to do. Victoria searched for a way out while praying for protection and guidance. She glanced behind her at the small, round window. She could try to squeeze through the basketball-sized hole.
She dismissed the idea and searched the cabinets for something to arm herself with but found nothing—no left over razor from a previous guest, no, well, no anything. She did have a tube of toothpaste. Shaking her head, she decided against trying to maim an intruder with a minty fresh squirt of gel. Instead, she picked up her toothbrush and held it like a knife. Aim for the eyes.
The sounds of the sliding glass door opening made her pause.
She had expected the intruder to enter the hallway, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try to slip out the front door. She crept into the hallway and edged along the wall, sporting her potentially blinding toothbrush. Fear and adrenaline surged through her, making her legs wobbly and unreliable. She inched her way slowly, leaning on the wall for support.
A board creaked beneath her feet, and she cringed. Fearing the intruder may have heard the noise, she made a run for it. She slipped around the corner and sprinted toward the front door, but ran into a wall that wasn’t there last night—a rock-hard wall of a man. She bounced off of his chest, sucked in a breath and let out an ear piercing scream. She raised her toothbrush and prepared to strike, but his body pressed her to the wall as his hands captured hers.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” His deep, masculine voice soothed.
He towered over her by at least six inches. Fighting the intense fear that erupted from being held against her will, Victoria refused to give in to the panic. She lifted her chin and met his intense brown-eyed gaze.
“If you’re not going to hurt me, then why am I pinned against the wall?” Victoria squeezed out the question with the remaining breath in her lungs.
He backed away a few inches, but didn’t release her wrists. “Because you came at me with that…” His words trailed off as he looked at her hand to see what she held. “Toothbrush?” He began to chuckle. The chuckle turned into a full blown laugh followed by a breathtaking smile. His eyebrows raised in silent question.
She swallowed, and heat crept up her face. “Well, it’s all I had. Who are you? And what are you doing in my cottage?”
“Your cottage?” His eyes widened. “Ahh, you must be Victoria. Your grandfather told me about you. But you aren’t supposed to be here yet.”
“You know Gramps?”
“Yes. I’m James Montgomery. Your grandfather hired me to repair your deck, among a few other odd jobs. It’s nice to meet you.” His voice softened as he let go of her and held out his hand for a shake.
Thrown off by the man’s disarming smile and simply gorgeous face, she automatically reached out. He took her hand into his warm, firm grip before she realized what she was doing and pulled away.
Anger replaced her fear, and she planted her hands on her hips. “And you’re inside because?”
“Because he gave me a key. Because I need to use the electrical outlets for my table saw. And, because you”—he pointed a finger at her—“aren’t supposed to be here yet.”
“And you didn’t see my car in the driveway?”
“Haven’t seen the driveway. I came by boat.”
Victoria glanced at the dock. A boat sat tied to the end. “Oh.”
She supposed if he did have intentions of harming her, she would have already been harmed. Judging from the sheer size of him, he wouldn’t have any problem overpowering her. Still, a lingering doubt had her stepping to the side, creating some distance between them.
“Well, I am here.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
His gaze roamed over her from head to toe as he tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. He grinned. “Sorry to wake you.”
She glanced down. Her silky nightgown barely covered her thighs and hardly hid anything at all.
Victoria crossed her arms over her chest. Her face flamed as a blush took up residence. “Excuse me.” She retreated to her bedroom, shut and locked the door, then leaned against it. Her heart pounded, and she swallowed hard. “Nice going Victoria…nice.”