The SEAL's Angel Excerpt

Chapter One

 

The bridge is out. He can't get across.  

Corinna Rigatero rose to her feet, brushed muddy hands off on her equally muddy jeans, and jogged down the entrance drive to the Wapassa Creek Bridge where a mail truck sat idling.

Snowmelt and a heavy spring rain caused the creek to rise past flood stage the week before, and erosion took care of the rest. The century-old, two-lane wooden bridge pitched low on the town side where heavy currents -- aided by the erosion -- had unsettled the end pilings. Vehicles couldn't risk a crossing, but people on foot had no worries, and she trotted across to the mail truck.

An older gentleman with snow-white hair glanced up as she approached. "I was just about to walk up to the house with your mail, but I'm thankful you saved me the trip." He smiled. "Corinna, isn't it?"

"Have we met?" she asked. This must be a new mailman.

He chuckled and held up a short stack of mail. "No, but your name is on most of these."

He handed over the stack. The delivery wasn't much, but then it never was. Bel Tesoro's utility bills were on computerized auto-pay, the resort's water came from Wapassa Creek, and all the resort cabins were on septic tanks. She took the trash in her pickup twice a week to the Bannock County drop-off site, and all her other expenses were done on a cash basis, so her mail was mostly junk.

"If anyone knows your name, it's the mailman." She grinned and held out a hand, which he shook. "Most folks call me Cory."

"It's nice to meet you, Cory. I'm Mitt Flugeln."

"That's a different name. What nationality would that be?"

"It's German. I'm helping out on the mail route temporarily."

"Well, it was nice meeting you, Mitt." She turned to go.

"Wait!" He held up a box. "You have a package, too."

Cory took the box from him and stared hard at the postmark -- Oceanside, California.

"Everything all right?" Mitt asked. "You went a little pale on me."

"I'm fine. Thanks again."

Cory didn't wait for his good-bye and jogged back across the bridge. When she heard the mail truck pull out, she sped up and headed straight for the house.

Brian. The package could be from Brian.

She took the stairs in the old Victorian house two at a time and skidded to a halt in her bedroom. She tossed the stack of mail on the bed and set the brown paper-wrapped package next to the pile, then she closed and locked her door. Her birthday was in three days. Had he remembered?

Cory hadn't heard from her older brother Brian in six long years. Brian had enlisted in the navy eight years earlier and joined the SEAL teams two years after that. His last trip home had been after he passed BUD/S training for the SEALs. He'd been happier than she had ever seen him, and Brian had brought along his BUD/S swim buddy. She refused to think of him now. She hadn't seen either of them since that last trip home.

Her fingers trembled as she searched a dresser drawer for a pair of scissors to slice open the packing tape. She couldn't breathe.

She had believed Brian to be dead for the past two years though no naval officials had ever shown up at the resort with the news. Two years after Brian's last visit, their father Hutch had received a notification from the navy that Brian was officially classified MIA. No amount of calls or letter writing had provided Cory with any additional information.

She hadn't wanted Brian to join the SEALs knowing he could be placed in the most dangerous situations. When she had expressed her concern, her brother had only laughed. She could still hear his voice that brisk autumn afternoon down by the lake.

"I'm the one that needs to worry, not you," Brian said. "I'm leaving you here all alone."

"Why worry about me? I have Hutch and Vern."

"Hutch is half my worry. He won't keep an eye on you." His expression turned grim. "All our father cares about is getting our witch of a stepmother Sheila to come back."

Cory winced at the memory. Their own mother had died when Cory was five, and she knew their stepmother had made Brian's life at the resort a living hell and eventually had succeeded in running him off. Sheila was the reason he had joined the navy in the first place. The irony of the story was that Sheila had deserted Hutch two months after Brian's enlistment. She had corralled a boyfriend on the side and taken off during the night, never to be heard from again. No loss for Cory since Sheila had never been much of a mother to the young girl after she married Hutch.

"Then don't leave me behind," Cory beseeched Brian that autumn afternoon. "Take me to San Diego with you."

"You'd never be happy anywhere but Bel Tesoro, little bit."

She knew in her heart Brian was right, so she hugged him hard and warned him to be careful.

"I prayed for a guardian angel for you last night to dog your steps while I'm gone," Brian whispered against her hair.

Shocked, she leaned back. "You did?"

He nodded. "You have to believe, too. For the angel to come."

Her eyes filled with tears.

"Tell me you do," he demanded. "Promise me."

"I promise."

Cory had believed in her guardian angel for years -- until everything had started to fall apart. Now she wasn't so sure. Maybe because she hadn't heard from Brian in so long.

She sliced through the packing tape and tried to get air in her lungs. Maybe the package wasn't from Brian. But who else would send her something from Oceanside, which happened to be right next door to San Diego and the Coronado naval base? Coronado was listed as Brian's last known address. She'd called and written naval officials dozens of times trying to locate her brother and had only met with stonewalls except for one young lieutenant who admitted her brother's records had been sealed. Someone on base had found out she'd spoken with the lieutenant, and she could never get through to the officer again.

She managed a slow deep breath and pulled back the box flap. Shredded paper sprang up and she pulled handfuls out, then reached back in and pulled out a horse statue with a note tied around its neck. The white stallion reared up from its perch atop a two-inch thick mahogany base. Cory removed the note from the horse's neck and unfolded the small card.

 

You'll find we are all flawed if you search for answers. The truth will set us free.

Happy Birthday,

B.

 

She felt the sting of tears and blinked them back. No I'm sorry for not calling. No I miss you. No I love you. Just Happy Birthday and a cryptic message.

Her first birthday present -- no, her first contact -- from Brian in years turned out to be a stupid horse statue and a stupid note. Her brother was alive after all and had just been ignoring her all this time. His blatant disregard made her chest ache and her eyes burn. Brian had deserted her for six long years with no explanation, knowing he was all she had.

She picked up the statue intending to heave it across the room, then thought better of the idea. She'd stopped crying over Brian two years ago, and she refused to cry now. She dropped the horse statue back in its box, shoved the note in after it, and stuffed the shredded paper back on top. She carefully closed and re-taped the lid, walked into her closet, and shoved the package up onto the highest shelf and as far back in the dark corner as she could push it.

 

*****

 

"You better have a seat, Mac," Admiral Gaynor said and pointed to a chair in front of his desk.

Lt. Sean MacKay eyed him warily, but did as he suggested.

"The search is off," Admiral Gaynor said grimly. "His body has been recovered, or what's left."

MacKay sank back in the chair. This he hadn't expected when ordered to appear in Gaynor's office at Coronado at thirteen hundred that May afternoon. The navy's search for his best friend had officially ended.

"What do you mean what's left?"

The pain in Gaynor's eyes was visible. "His body was burned beyond recognition."

"How do you know--"

Gaynor put a hand up. "His scorched dog tags were still around his neck."

"But someone could--"

"We're having dental records checked. At least, we're trying."

"Trying?"

Gaynor grimaced. "I'd hoped to avoid this part of the conversation, Mac."

The admiral knew how hard this was for him and used his SEAL nickname of Mac instead of Lt. MacKay. His SEAL team had dubbed him Mac shortly after his arrival -- not as a shortened version of MacKay though folks outside the team assumed so. His team nickname was Mac the Knife for his proficiency with a multitude of various-sized blades. The moniker had stuck even when he'd moved on to his Black Ops unit.

"Some type of hi-temp accelerant had been used on the body. Even the teeth were damaged," the admiral went on. "We've sent them to a forensic anthropologist for identification."

The air whooshed from Mac's lungs in a violent exhale. His hands curled into fists. "Could they tell if Blue had been tortured?"

Gaynor shook his head no.

This wasn't possible. Blue couldn't be gone. Blue was his swim buddy in BUD/S, his best friend, his family ever since...

Gaynor took a seat in the chair next to Mac. "There's more."

"I'm going to hate this, aren't I?"

"We think..." Gaynor cleared his throat. "No, we know that Lieutenant Rigatero turned before he was murdered."

"What? That's bullshit and you know it!"

Gaynor had used his friend's formal title of Lieutenant Rigatero and not his SEAL nickname. Brian was known as Blue -- as in police-blue -- since Brian always always followed the rules to the letter and hounded his Teammates to do the same.

For the last few years, Mac and Blue were part of a small but elite Black Ops counter-terrorism team. Gaynor had handpicked their eight-man Black Ops team as a Special Mission Unit with Blue and Mac the two Lieutenants in charge. The team had a more personal relationship with the admiral than other SEAL Teams. The bonus from facing death in every single mission. They were the best of the best, and no way could any of the team be traitors -- especially Blue.

"We have proof, Mac."

"What proof?" His throat had gone dry.

Impossible.

"Tapes -- both audio and visual -- of Rigatero negotiating with two representatives from Abdul-Nabbe's group."

"Two!"

"Yes, and they're the worst of the bunch. The Syrians as they are known by the FBI Counter-Terrorism boys -- Farouq Nawar and Achar Aboudi."

Mac felt like he just took a kick to the gut. The Syrians. Every Black Ops soldier knew them and wanted a chance at those two. His heart screamed at him to deny the charges, to defend his best friend in the world, but his head couldn't get past Gaynor's proof -- tapes.

"I want to view the tapes," he demanded.

Gaynor shook his head. "No can do. You don't have the appropriate clearance."

"But you do. You could fix it." Gaynor started to shake his head, and Mac pressed on. "I have to hear it for myself. Blue was my best friend." He stared hard into Gaynor's eyes, fought back the lump in his throat. "Please, sir," he begged.

After an interminable moment, Gaynor heaved a deep sigh. "All right. You two were always my favorites on the Middle East teams. I'm due to view the tapes myself at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow[SM1] . Be in my office fifteen minutes before that."

 

*****

 

Mac reached the outskirts of Clark at eleven-thirty at night. After his early morning meeting with the admiral, he'd gone back to his bachelor quarters at North Island, Coronado Naval Base, and packed a duffel, loaded his Harley Road King into the back of his rig, and hit the road. He'd driven straight through to Washington state, stopping only twice at rest areas on Interstate 5 for short power naps to keep going.

He'd made good time, but his mind had remained a vicious jumble throughout the ride, going over what he'd seen and heard in the tape session with the admiral. Gaynor had agreed the audio was scratchy at best. Blue's meeting had been below ground, probably a basement or even a cave.

The tape had shown Blue negotiating with Abdul-Nabbe's boys, who were known competitors with the Islamic Jihad group their Black Ops team had set up for a sting three days later. The sting was designed to steal rather than pay for a new nerve-gas formula the Jihad pukes would have in their possession for the meeting. So how had Blue's Syrian terrorists gotten their hands on the same formula?

And dammit, we couldn't hear what Brian said.

Mac pummeled himself with that thought all the way through the central valley in California. He knew Blue. His teammate didn't play outside the rules. Mac's gut said if Blue had set up a meeting with these guys, he'd found a way to do an end-around on the SEAL mission. Their Black Ops team had been after the formula for the new and improved nerve gas destined for Syria. Whoever gained control of the formula would claim a new level of power in the Middle East, maybe even Afghanistan. The U. S. wanted the formula to create antidotes and destroy production facilities.

What if Blue had managed a way to get in ahead of the Black Ops mission and secure control of the formula? Blue's job was recon -- it always was. So, if there was a way to secure the formula ahead of time, he would find it. That sounded like his Blue.

He had shared those thoughts with Gaynor, who after careful consideration had -- thankfully -- agreed with the possibility.

Blue had obtained the formula three days before the SEAL sting with their targeted Islamic Jihad group -- three days to bring the acquired formula back to base or get rid of it. He hadn't brought it back to base, and no thumb drive or documents had been found with his remains. Gaynor assumed, probably correctly, that Blue had hidden his acquisition or sent it to someone for safekeeping.

Hence, Mac's trip to the little town of Clark, Washington.

Gaynor suspected Blue might have sent the formula to his only living relative -- his sister Cory Rigatero. Mac had argued vehemently with Gaynor against this assumption, even breaking his promise to Blue and confessing to Gaynor that after he and Blue had entered the Black Ops unit, Blue had broken all contact with his sister.

Blue even had an official-looking MIA notification rigged up and sent to Cory and his father a year after Blue disappeared off the radar screen, so if anyone ever tried to question Cory, she could honestly admit she believed her brother to be missing in action. Blue had done it to keep Cory safe -- free of any fallout from his work.

Mac had no family to cut off. He only had Blue.

What Mac had kept from Gaynor was that Blue had clandestinely kept up with his sister's life without her knowledge.

Blue and Mac had a swim buddy in BUD/S named Tom Hartley who'd suffered an appendicitis during Hell Week and been forced to drop out. The two friends had kept in contact with Hartley. Their friend had ended up going back to school to be a chaplain and had gone to work for the VA Hospital in Oceanside. Blue had contacted Hartley who'd immediately agreed to help.

Blue and Hartley had then connected with Cory's maintenance foreman, Vern Kroemer, and explained their plan to keep watch over Cory and their need for secrecy due to Blue's line of work. Vern, ex-Marine Recon, agreed without question and so had begun years of covert checking on Blue's sister without her knowing.

Blue sent letters to Hartley who forwarded letters under his name to Vern with a VA Hospital return address. As far as they knew -- and Vern swore it was true -- no one in Clark was the wiser.

The small town hadn't grown at all since Mac's last visit. All the lights were out as he wheeled through town, and he found his lodging choices still reduced to two -- the Lewis Lake Lodge or Cory's Bel Tesoro Resort. Not wanting to deal with seeing Cory again without a full night's sleep, Mac settled for the Lewis Lake Lodge and paid more than he'd intended for a room. This after informing the valet he'd park his rig himself and blowing off the bellman who reached for his duffel when Mac entered the lobby.

The Lewis Lake Lodge was a luxury pine-log structure comprised of the main building and two long annex buildings on either side. The lobby had gone quiet by midnight, and the front desk clerk swiftly divested Mac of the exorbitant room rate. She'd gone from charming to snotty in less than fifteen seconds after he'd said, "Just one night," in answer to her question, "How long will you be staying?"

He grabbed his key and receipt off the counter, thankful to be spared wishing Miss Snotty a Good Night since she'd sprinted for the back office before he got his wallet in his pocket. He aimed his steps for the corridor leading to the north annex, anxious to partake of the comfortable king-sized bed in his over-priced room.

Mac's cell phone rang, startling him. He dug in his pocket for the iPhone.

"MacKay."

"Mac -- Gaynor here."

"Yes, sir." Mac automatically headed for the far end of the deserted lobby.

"The FBI Counter-Terrorism team suspects Rigatero turned traitor."

"He didn't turn!" Mac blurted.

"You and I want to believe that, but we have to prove it first. If the FBI finds out about Rigatero's sister and gets hold of the package, we'll never see it again. We'll never get to prove he is... was innocent."

"We don't even know there is a package."

"No, and neither do they. And another thing..." Gaynor's deep sigh was clearly audible. "If The Syrians screwed up the deal and lost the formula, then Nawar and Aboudi can't go back to Abdul-Nabbe. They'll have to go after the formula themselves."

"How much time do we have? Will the FBI find Cory soon?" Mac wanted to know.

"It's what they do."

"Damnation."

"Once the FBI discovers her identity, they'll send a team to Clark to check on her."

"Shit."

"Right. Now you've got to get to the sister first and find out if Lt. Rigatero sent her anything."

"Yes, sir."

"Will Rigatero's sister recognize you?"

"Unlikely, sir. She hasn't seen me in six years."

But I've seen her plenty.

"Well then, you better lose the beard and get a haircut. You look like a desperado. You don't want to scare the poor girl."

Mac glanced in the lobby mirror at his dark, shaggy hair and the beard covering the lower half of his face, courtesy of his last Black Ops mission in the Middle East -- with Blue. He hadn't had the time or the inclination to get cleaned up yet.

"It might be better if she doesn't recognize me just yet."

"What good will that do us?" Gaynor wanted to know.

"Cory and I didn't exactly part on the best of terms, sir." Mac clearly heard the admiral's disgusted exhale.

"That's just great. Well, do what you can to get back in the girl's good graces, frogman. And get us that information we need."

"Right, sir."

"Good luck. Report in every forty-eight hours on your progress, sooner if you locate the package."

"Yes, sir."

Mac's gut twisted over Gaynor's news. The FBI would be looking for Cory; The Syrians would eventually come after Cory; Mac had to keep her safe without letting her know he expected company in Clark; and Cory Rigatero hated him with good reason.

He rubbed his tired and no doubt blood-shot eyes. He'd catch a few hours of sleep and go find Cory first thing in the morning to see if she'd recently received anything from Blue.

As he rounded the corner, he noticed a door slightly ajar in the short hall connecting the lobby with the north annex. Probably a closet since the only other doors in the short corridor were for the men's room and the ladies' room. Mac paused when voices escaped the open door.

"I'm tired of meeting you in housekeeping closets," a feminine voice hissed. "You should at least take me to your room."

"We can't be seen together," a low masculine voice rumbled. "You know that. Senior has rules about me dallying with the help."

Mac smothered a snort.

An indignant gasp erupted. "Is that all I am to you? Dallying? What kind of man hides a woman in a hotel broom closet at midnight? Who would ever see us anyway?"

Good girl.

Then, "Stop it. Let go of me."

Mac stayed put, not sure he wanted to pass by the cracked-open door. Maybe the female needed help. If Mac was going to storm into the same room, better to keep the element of surprise on his side.

"You know you're special to me," the male voice sounded again. "We're in this together."

The woman had gone silent, apparently considering her options.

"Aren't we?" the wuss prodded.

"Weeelll... "

"Come on, Sugarbutt."

Mac grimaced at the awful name, and when he heard the accompanying slurpy kiss, he figured to hell with it -- Sugarbutt was officially on her own.

He took a step.

"All you have to do is sneak upstairs and get those documents for me. They're in the top drawer of Senior's desk, right-hand side."

Wuss had swiftly returned to his plotting, and the mention of documents put Mac's antennae up.

"I don't know."

"Come on, Sugarbutt."

"I don't like that name."

Me either.

A low prurient chuckle sounded. "Why? You have the sweetest ass in the whole county. Maybe even the whole state."

Mac rolled his eyes.

Sugarbutt fell for it. She giggled -- tittered more like it.

"So you'll get those documents for me?" Wuss prodded.

"What if I get caught?"

"You won't."

"But what if I do?"

"Then you'll just say you were dropping off receipts," Wuss offered. "Just be sure to take some with you."

"Why can't you get the documents yourself?"

Atta girl.

"Because someone will tell Senior I was in his office, and he'll think I'm up to something. He won't stop till he finds out what it is." Another slurpy kiss sounded. "And all our plans will be ruined."

"Our plans?"

"Sure, baby."

Another giggle erupted, and the door closed. The lock snicked into place.

Good. Saved Mac the trouble. He found his room and tumbled into bed.

 

*****

 

Vern Kroemer and Cory Rigatero stood side-by-side and stared at the two ancient camellias that flanked the Bel Tesoro Resort entrance sign. Cory's great-grandfather, Brocconi "Brock" Rigatero, had planted the twin shrubs when he built the first five cabins back in 1928. One twin remained a verdant giant, its stately green leaves shiny in the morning sun. Vern and Cory frowned at the other twin's brown, desiccated leaves. Cory's dog Garth, a giant black Labrador retriever, sat at their feet.

"I don't think this one is long for this world," Vern pronounced.

Vern was Bel Tesoro's maintenance manager and all-round caretaker. Cory's father, Hutch Rigatero, had hired Vern fifteen years earlier as his grounds manager since Vern's background was landscaping. Hutch had been pleased to learn Vern could fix darn near anything and quickly made him the resort maintenance manager -- and eventually part of the family, leaving Cory in Vern's care when Hutch chased his wife over half the state.

"It can't be," Cory protested. "Can't you fix her?""

Garth gave a compassionate whine, and Vern solemnly shook his head. "I tried. This twin is all done. I'm not even sure what killed... her."

Cory -- at the ripe old age of seven -- had decided the two entrance camellias were a couple. The girl guarded the left side of the sign, and the boy guarded the right. Vern had always found it funny when she used pronouns for the shrubs, but he wasn't chuckling now.

"Great-grandpa Brock planted both of them when he built the resort. We can't just let her die."

"I did the best I could, honey, but... she couldn't be saved."

"I know you did, Vern." Cory turned back to stare mournfully at the beleaguered shrub.

"I'll go get a shovel and give her a proper burial." He strode off toward the barn.

Cory thought she heard him mutter, "Out of sight, out of mind," but she couldn't be sure.

Tears burned at the backs of her eyelids, but she forced them away. She didn't cry anymore. Ever. But if she did, now would be the time. Everything seemed to be slipping lately. Her gaze shifted to the large two-story Victorian home perched on a rise beyond the entrance sign. At this distance, the peeling paint, the sagging sections in the wraparound porch, the cracked and broken pieces of railing, and the two tilted shutters weren't quite so noticeable, but Cory knew where each and every deficiency was located and how much the repairs would cost. Money she didn't have. Lately, the resort had been lucky just to break even.

That thought brought a fresh wave of melancholy. She had to maintain a stiff upper lip to keep her staff moving. She couldn't afford to be sentimental when her stack of problems requiring attention kept growing by the day. The dying camellia twin was merely the straw that broke the camel's back.

She heard the crunch of tires on gravel and turned to see a  perfectly-restored 1959 red Cadillac Biarritz convertible pull up near the sign. For one brief second, Cory's heart lifted, thinking Harry Wojcik -- her father's best friend in his signature Stetson -- had stopped by for a visit. Instead, Percy Standish Sr. pulled off his oversized Stetson and grinned at her.

So the rumor was true.

Standish was medium height, medium build, and plain looking. Unfortunately, he had a personality that insisted on making up for too much plain and medium by running over the top of everyone in his path -- especially his son, Percy Standish Jr., whom townsfolk had taken to calling Junior. This left the elder Standish to be addressed as "Senior," which he didn't seem to mind at all, obviously thinking this elevated his standing in the community.

He climbed out of the classic car and paraded around the front of the Biarritz as if he owned the entire town of Clark. "Good morning, Cory."

She ignored him and turned back to the withered twin. She didn't want him here.

He gave her a hard stare. "Are you mooning over some dead shrub?"

She glared. "What do you want, Mr. Standish?"

"I just stopped by to say good morning."

"Right."

He stiffened. "What? You don't believe me? We are neighbors, after all." 

Standish and his Lodge owned two-thirds of the Lewis Lake shoreline. The Rigatero resort owned the other third, so technically, they were neighbors.

"You wouldn't be here if you didn't want something."

Senior glowered at her. "Show some respect, young lady. Your father wouldn't have allowed you to take that tone with me."

Her father had always taught Cory to show respect to her elders, but she'd run out of her allotment for the Senior Standish years earlier when he had systematically forced the Clark townsfolk to become indebted to him -- either from threatened foreclosure or the threat of removing his patronage from their businesses, which would virtually shut them down in a town the size of Clark. Well over half the town had become a hundred-percent dependent upon Lewis Lake Lodge largesse for their livelihood. The remaining half had succumbed to at least a partial dependence on Senior. His influence had reached almost everyone in Clark -- except for Cory Rigatero.

"My father's dead, and I'll take whatever tone I want with the man who cheated Harry Wojcik out of his Cadillac Biarritz."

Senior took a step forward. "How dare you?"

She stood her ground. "How dare I what? Tell the truth?"

"I paid Wojcik a fair price for his car. He accepted my offer. He didn't have to. I'm not going to pay him more just to be a nice guy. I wouldn't be a successful businessman if I did that. I'd be bankrupt."

"He didn't choose to sell it," Cory spouted indignantly. "He was forced to sell it to pay for his wife's chemo. His insurance didn't cover the whole fee."

Senior gave a condescending sniff. "Not my problem."

"So you just cheated him."

Senior's beady black eyes glittered like the eyes on the Gila monsters she'd seen on the Discovery Channel the night before. The poisonous lizards would have a lot in common with Senior Standish.

"I paid him twenty-eight thousand for his car. A fair price considering it's over fifty years old."

"Fair?" Cory exploded. "That car is perfect, and it's been appraised at fifty thousand. You stole it!"

Senior took a menacing step closer. "Why you--"

Garth growled, and Senior's eyes bugged wide.

"Trouble, Cory?" came a voice from behind her.

Thank you, Vern.

She was glad her caretaker showed up. She pushed Senior a little harder than she planned, but it felt good. 

"No trouble, Vern," she answered him as he came alongside. "Mr. Standish was just leaving."

Senior's glare ricocheted between the two and came back to Cory. "I'd had half a mind to make you another offer for your resort, but your smart mouth just reduced the price I'm willing to pay."

"I won't consider an offer from you at any price," she shot back.

"You should consider your manners, young lady!"

"And I think you should leave."

"You're losing money here every week," Senor prodded stubbornly. "Do you want to lose the whole place to bankruptcy?"

Cory took a step back as though he'd slapped her. She'd never considered bankruptcy. Well, maybe she had and just shoved it from her mind.

Vern stepped in front of her. "I believe the lady asked you to vamoose."

"You'd best be careful, too," Standish told Vern. "I also had half a mind to let you stay on when I take over here."

Garth eased up next to Vern and growled low in his throat.

"Now," Vern ordered.

Senior threw up his hands and stomped back to the shiny Biarritz.

"Half a mind is about right," Vern mumbled, and Cory smiled for the first time since she'd come outside.

"Thanks for backing me up," she told Vern.

"Always. So, the rumors are true then? Senior stole Harry's Biarritz right out from under him?"

"Looks that way," she said and glared at the retreating Cadillac. "I hope somebody sticks it to Senior one day."

"You and half the town. Now, you go on inside and let me give the twin here a proper burial."

 

*****

 

Mac had watched the scene at the entrance sign play out from his position in the shadows at the end of the wraparound porch. He'd felt sucker-punched from his first glance at Corinna Rigatero. This was not the fresh-faced eighteen-year-old sweetheart from his memories or even the young woman from her college years. Corinna had grown into a beautiful lady. No more gangly legs and slender girlish figure. She still had the silky brown hair and huge green eyes from her youth, but her body had filled out nicely and in all the right places. Maybe a little too nicely -- like out of his league nicely.  

Mac stared -- mesmerized -- and when she flung her hair back over her shoulder and stared up at the caretaker, his mouth had gone dry at the thought of being on the other end of that gaze. He'd tortured himself for years over his perverted seduction of the eighteen-year-old Cory and the passionate kisses he had stolen in the moonlight. He had been twenty-four at the time and should have kept his distance, but something had drawn him to her. Maybe he'd instinctively known about the woman she would become, and he'd just made his play early when opportunity presented itself.

Yeah right.

Plain and simple -- he'd had a thing for a girl six years younger than him. On the cusp of jailbait, which made him a pervert all right. But wow! Look at her now. He didn't feel like a pervert now. He felt like a red-blooded American male staring at a beautiful, passionate woman. And yes, he knew the passion was there. Even at eighteen, he had seen and felt her flare. He'd had one brief taste before he'd dragged himself away and done the honorable thing -- disappear.

When Cory turned back to stare at the house, he was sure she'd seen him, but she only gazed at the old house. The lost look on her face made him want to go to her and comfort her, but he stayed in place, unsure of the reception he would receive.

Mac had risen shortly after sunrise, anxious to get started on his mission. He'd paid his bill at the Lodge and stored the duffel in his rig, then unloaded his Harley from the back and taken off down River Road, enjoying the feel of the cool morning air in his face. He'd needed to clear his head before he caught up with Blue's little sister.

When he arrived at the resort and saw no signs of stirring in the big house or the barn, he'd driven down the perimeter road to the far end of the resort, parked his bike, and walked around to check the place out. Not much had changed since his last visit, just a little more disrepair.

The resort lay on the east side of Lewis Lake, a good twenty-minute ride from the town of Clark, which he'd found out after coming to a swift halt at the temporary detour set up at the bridge washout at Wapassa Creek.

The gravel entrance road to Bel Tesoro veered off the highway and sloped down a winding drive towards Lewis Lake. Halfway down the drive was the entrance sign, and the large Victorian perched on a rise just beyond. Blue had told him once that his great-grandfather had been smart enough to build the house at an elevation higher than that of a hundred-year storm. The homestead may get cut off from the highway when Wapassa Creek surged its banks, but the main house would never flood.

Past the house, the perimeter road curved toward the lake, and the second turnoff led to the enormous barn, which oddly enough looked to be in better shape than the house. Mac had poked his head in the large double doors to look around. Half the barn was comprised of two rows of stalls against each wall and a hayloft overhead. The horses had spotted him, and at least six long faces extended over their stall gates to stare and nicker at the intruder.

In the back half of the barn, an assortment of maintenance equipment surrounded a small shop in the far corner. Mac spied two John Deere riding mowers -- one large and one small -- an old push mower, a half-dozen multi-sized ladders, and a mini-backhoe amongst the disarray. Lord knew what else lay back in the shadows where he couldn't see. A large corral hooked to the back of the barn, complete with a water trough and an exercise ring for the horses.

A curving line of quaint log cabins stretched back into the fir trees lining the lakeshore. The cabins looked small by mountain resort standards and in need of work -- a sagging shutter on some, doors needing paint on others, and a few shingles pulled loose on all of them. The cabins started about fifty yards beyond the barn and snaked around the lake, each with a small gravel parking area in front of the cabin and clusters of evergreen trees crowding the spaces between.

Mac knew from Blue's family stories that the cabins had been built in three distinct eras. The first five were small and could probably sleep no more than two or three people tops. The next five were definitely larger, almost twice the size of the first five. The last ten were larger still. The resort cabins were all Ponderosa-pine log structures, built from trees that had grown on the site, and were now plenty weathered.

The last cabin sat apart from the others at the end of the line as though needing extra privacy. The solitary cabin was larger than all the rest and had blue-gray clapboard siding, white shutters, and a shake roof.

The legendary cabin.

Behind the large Victorian main house, which he already knew served as check-in and registration, was an enormous lawn and garden that stretched toward the lake. Between the rear garden and the lake were a dozen clusters of Douglas firs and spruce trees to add rustic ambience. At the lakeshore was a wide, white-sand beach complete with a volleyball net.

At the far end of the beach stood a small log cabin against which rested a half-dozen kayaks and canoes. A short dock stretched out into the lake with three slips on either side -- most empty except for a couple johnboats with small outboard motors.

All in all a quaint, well-laid-out resort that probably took a hell of a lot of work to maintain. The first time he and Blue had stayed at the resort, Cory's father Hutch had been running the place, and if Mac were being honest, the place had looked a lot better maintained back then. Now, it looked a bit... rundown.

He heaved a sigh. Cory had been going it alone with only Vern to help for the four years since Hutch had passed. How had she done it? On a wing and a prayer most like. And now, as he stared at the desolate look on her face, he knew it had been a lot tougher than Vern had led Blue to believe. Mac and Blue had come home for the funeral, but didn't let anyone other than Vern know they were there.

Just when Mac had considered going over to Cory, the classic car had approached, and he pulled further back in the shadows. The fewer people in Clark knew of his existence just yet, the better.

He didn't like the looks of the newcomer on sight and liked the way he treated Cory even less. If Cory thought the guy was a thief, then he was. Mac decided the thief would bear closer scrutiny. A wave of protectiveness hit him hard. When the thief called Standish stepped toward Cory, Mac left the shadows, his hands knuckled into fists. The old caretaker Vern had reached her first, and her black dog had taken exception to the thief as well.

Smart dog.

Cory had declared, "No trouble, Vern," but Mac would corner the caretaker for information as soon as he left Cory.

The thief Standish marched to his car, and Mac eased back into the shadows, content to delay his initial meeting with Cory until he'd gotten a few answers to pressing questions.

Cory and her dog headed for the big house, and Mac ducked around back. He'd slip over to the barn and wait for Vern. What he really wanted to do was to follow that Standish character and find out why he wanted Cory's resort, but he needed to get his mission home base situated first -- and that was right here.

As he moved toward the barn, Mac spotted a young man about Cory's age jogging up from the first group of cabins, and he ducked into the cluster of red alders near the pump house out back.

"Cory! Wait!" the jogger called out.

She looked up, and her face softened, some of the earlier strain and despair fading away.

Mac felt a strange compression in his chest.

"Morning, Jasper," she called back and stopped to wait for him.

The lanky, sandy-haired Jasper skidded to a stop in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders.

What the hell?

Mac stifled a growl. Vern's letters hadn't mentioned any boyfriend. Mac had envisioned Cory to be unattached.

"Vern told me about the twin. I'm so sorry," Jasper said tenderly.

"Thanks. You're sweet to care."

"I worry about you." Jasper pulled her into his arms for a hug.[GD2] 

It bothered Mac more than he cared to admit when Cory's arms slid around the guy's waist as she hugged him back. So much for the complete rundown on Cory's life that Blue had been promised. How much had Vern kept from the two of them? Or from Blue? Mac sighed.

He slipped out from the shrub cover and strode around the front of the house toward the entrance sign. He didn't want to wait. Old Vern had some explaining to do.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Vern had created a trench around the tall dried-up shrub by the time Mac got back out front. The old caretaker worked diligently at severing the connected roots until the tree ball shifted in the open hole, then he stopped to take a breather.

"Looks like you could use some help," Mac said.

Vern spun around. "Who are you? And why are you sneaking up on me like that?"

"Not sneaking. Just looking for work."

"Ain't got none." Vern started to turn back to the dead shrub.

"In that case, I'm from the Oceanside VA Hospital."

Vern whipped back to face him and stared hard for several long moments. "The beard and dark hair threw me," he said slowly. "If you hadn't said something, I'd never have caught on. You were Brian's friend."

 Mac nodded.

"Brian?"

Mac sighed and shook his head.

"Aw hell." Vern pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. When he opened them, he asked, "So why are you here -- to tell Cory?"

"Yeah, and to make sure she's okay. I promised Brian I would."

Vern sighed long and slow. "Aw hell... let's go tell her."

"Not yet."

Vern frowned his confusion.

"I have my reasons."

"Which are?"

Mac should have known the old caretaker would be difficult. Apparently, the fellow had stood in for Hutch when Cory's father died.

"I guess you could say I'm Cory's... philosophical guardian."

"The hell you say," Vern sputtered. "I'm here to watch over her."

"And Brian asked me to watch over her if anything happened to him," Mac said softly, "so it appears you and I are at an impasse."

Vern grunted.

"I'd need to work here for a while to be sure she's okay after she hears about Brian."

"We can't afford you," Vern said belligerently. "Besides we already got Jasper."

The name made Mac frown at the image that rose up of Jasper with his hands on Cory. "So I'll work for free."

"She knows we can't afford you, and she won't accept you working for free."

"Then you'll have to help me convince her." Mac held his palms out. "You're going to have to trust me when I say I need to stay for a while to be sure she's safe. Brian got involved in things he... shouldn't have. Things I can't share with you just yet."

Vern stared for so long Mac wondered if he'd ever answer him.

Finally, the caretaker said, "Come on up to the house and help me convince Cory we need another handyman around here."

 

*****

 

Cory stopped in the kitchen of the main house to see if anything needed to be purchased for meals over the next few days. Cook turned away from a large pot she stirred on the stove and wrapped Cory up in a big strong hug. The middle-aged woman had a sixth sense about hug need. She could find it in the most recalcitrant of humans -- like Vern -- and deliver a hug at the perfect moment.

"Sorry about the twin," Cook whispered against Cory's hair.

Cory's throat grew tight, and she hadn't realized how badly she wanted one of Cook's hugs until the woman had wrapped her up.

Angelica Vida was her real name, but she preferred to go by Cook. She claimed to be part Spanish and part Lord knows what, and no two people described her the same way. She'd followed Vern home from Clark one day six months earlier, and within a week, she became part of the Bel Tesoro family.

Cory didn't even mind knowing very little about her history or the fact that anytime she tried to discuss it, Cook would say only that she moved around a lot and didn't have one. She had no family, liked to see the countryside, and agreed to stay at Bel Tesoro, "till I get the itch to leave again." She'd follow up with that killer smile of hers.

"You all right?" Cook asked her now.

Cory nodded. "I thought I'd go out front and see if Vern needed any help."

"He's all done," Cook said and handed Garth a dog biscuit from a jar on the counter. "He had a young man out front helping him when I peeked out the window."

"A young man? You mean Jasper?"

"No, I've never seen this one around here before." Cook went back to her pot. "Handsome, though," she added. "They headed for the barn."

"I better go see who it is," Cory said, already striding for the back door.

She called out as soon as she reached the barn, and Vern hollered from his small office at the back. Cory threaded her way through all the equipment in the back half of the barn and stopped dead in the doorway of the shop that doubled as Vern's small office.

Cook's stranger stood up when she appeared in the doorway and literally stole Cory's breath away.

Shaggy hair and dark brown curls perfectly teamed with a matching beard was her first thought. Her second thought was broad -- really broad -- shoulders beneath his black flannel shirt, and hips so narrow his black jeans sagged a bit on his frame. His sleeves were rolled up, and those forearms and biceps belonged to a working man.

Good grief! Stop staring Cory!

She jerked her gaze to his face, and blue eyes stared back. Blue eyes that caught her gaze like a predator traps prey. Blue eyes that twinkled with just enough devilment to cause a wicked flutter in her belly. Blue eyes that looked startlingly familiar.

Maybe she just wanted them to look familiar, so she could already know this handsome man.

"Mac here is our new help."

She heard Vern's voice and fought to break free of that predatory stare. No time for one last once-over.

"Wh-what?" She forced her eyes to Vern who grinned at her.

What had she missed?

"I said... Mac here is our new help," Vern repeated slowly enough she felt her cheeks flush at having been caught not paying attention.

"New help?" She blurted.

She couldn't afford the help she had let alone new help.

"I need him," Vern said flatly.

"You need--" She cleared her throat. "Vern can I talk to you in private. Please?"

She backed out of the office and headed for the horse stalls. Not hearing Vern behind her, she turned. He'd stopped just outside the office door and didn't look as though he intended to move any farther, so she stomped back.

"We can't afford him," she hissed.

"He'll work for next to nothing as long as we let him stay," Vern said in a normal and much-too-loud voice.

So much for discussing the stranger privately.

"Why is that? No one works for nothing," she argued.

She still kept her voice down. The stranger may figure out what they were saying, but she didn't have to make it easy for him.

Vern shrugged. "Says he likes it here. Wants to stay a while."

"How long is a while?"

"Don't rightly know. I guess that would depend on the work and how we treat him." He pulled his ball cap off and reseated it. "Me? I don't ask questions. I don't tend to look a gift horse in the mouth when I get one."

Cory frowned at the indirect criticism.

"We don't know anything about him," she huffed.

"We know all we need to know."

"We don't even know his last name. We need to know that for me to pay him."

"Don't need his last name to hand him cash," Vern pointed out. "That's why he come so cheap. He wants to work for straight cash. And don't look at me like that. We've done it before. If Mac wants us to know his last name, he'll volunteer it. So far he hasn't, and I'm good with that."

"Well--"

"You should be good with that, too. We don't often get the blessing of free help around here." He gave her a pointed stare.

"Free?"

"Almost free. Practically free."

"He could be a thief for all we know."

Vern shot her a quelling glance as though she'd insulted him.

"My gut instinct says he's a good man," he said indignantly.

Vern's gut instinct had guided dozens of the resort's business decisions since Hutch had passed away. She winced. Vern's gut had never steered them wrong.

"And we can use the extra help," he added when he saw her resolve weakening.

She was beaten, and she knew it. "Whatever."

Vern grinned.

Two could play his game.

"Betsy Eadle says the toilet in cabin five is backed up. Go tell our new help to unclog it and clean up in there."

Betsy Eadle and her sister Leah were the resort's housekeepers and two more of the help Cory could barely afford now.

"Then come back and go with me to Clark Lumber Company," she continued. "You promised to help me pick out and load lumber for the dock board replacements."

Vern was already shaking his head. "I'll fix the john in cabin five. That one's always tricky. You can take Mac to the lumberyard. Just let him get a look at the dock first, so he knows what you need."

Vern turned and went back in the office before Cory could argue. Decision made.

"Can't tell who's the boss around here," she muttered and stomped out of the barn.

 

*****

 

The ride to Clark Lumber Company had been quiet following an inauspicious start. Cory had tried to leave without Mac, and he'd caught her. He popped up out of nowhere at the passenger window, knocking to be let in. She unlocked the door and stared straight ahead, too embarrassed to look at him. Garth -- drat his hide -- had happily shoved over to the middle and given up his beloved window seat to accommodate the hitchhiker. Her deceitful black Labrador seemed enamored with the new help.

Her gaze had remained focused on River Road as they detoured the long way around the lake to Clark since her bridge over Wapassa Creek had washed out.

Mac finally broke the taut silence. "Vern said you'd need my help. Why'd you try to drive off and leave me?"

She hadn't expected him to spotlight her like that. What could she say? She had tried to ditch him.

"I didn't need any help," she said defensively.

"You said you did when you asked Vern to go with you," he pressed.

"Look, I realized I could do it alone, okay?"

"Okay."

She glanced over. He'd given up too easy. He faced the passenger window and watched the forest fly by, one hand patting Garth's head, the other tapping fingers on the armrest.

Good.

"Vern cares about you a lot," he said quietly.

How had he picked up on that so soon? She glanced over again, but he continued to stare out the side window. Several minutes of blessed silence passed.

"That's good," he finally added as an afterthought. "You need someone in your corner. A woman alone and in business can use someone to count on."

She faced forward and scowled.

Don't make me like you, mister. You're a stranger. I don't know you.

So why did she feel like she did know him?

"What does the name Bel Tesoro mean?" he suddenly asked. His head remained turned away.

"What? Oh. It's Italian. It means beautiful treasure."

"Why?"

"Why what? What is that what it means, or why is the resort named that?"

And why did she have to ask why? Silence was best between them on this ride. She didn't know him well enough to keep up her end of the conversation.

His head turned, and he flashed a killer smile. His predatory gaze captured hers for the seconds she took her eyes off the road. Her spine vibrated.

"Why was the resort named that?"

Okay. At least now, she had something to say. She could answer his question. Did she want to start this?

"It's a long story."

"I'm not going anywhere."

She huffed out a sigh. "My great-grandfather built and named the resort though it started out as a small fishing camp."

Why did the Wapassa Creek bridge have to wash out and the drive to town take three times longer going around the north end of the lake? The normal ride to town took less than ten minutes. With the detour, it was closer to a half hour now. A half hour with him.

"So it means beautiful treasure," Mac prodded.

"That's right."

"And the lake is the treasure?"

He asked the question as though he knew better, and she glanced over Garth to see if Mac was joking. Wide blue innocent eyes stared back.

"Not exactly," she said.

"This is like pulling teeth."

Cory laughed. She was being ridiculous, and she knew she should trust Vern's gut instinct. This stranger Mac only wanted to help them. So why was she being so difficult?

""Like I said, a long story." She smiled. "If you've got time."

"I do."

"It's a wild story."

He grinned. "The wilder, the better."

"Well, my great grandfather, Brocconi Rigatero -- Brock for short -- grew up in 1920s Brooklyn and had a good friend named Salvatore Lucania."

She waited for a response, got none, and went on. "The Mafia had taken over the New York neighborhood where Brock lived, so violence became a way of life. Brock wanted out, and he looked for a safe place to raise his family. He decided to head west, and his friend Salvatore gave him a loan to get started and told him to keep in touch."

Odd that Mac didn't look surprised by any of this, even the mention of Mafia. Garth had laid down on the seat with his head in Mac's lap -- the traitor.

"When Brock opened his first five cabins -- the ones at the front of the resort -- he invited Salvatore to the grand opening of his new fishing camp, never expecting his friend to show up."

She steered around a pine branch sticking out onto the two-lane black top.

"But Salvatore did," Mac guessed.

Surprised, she glanced over. "Yes, he did."

Mac was paying attention.

"And Lucania even brought along his two friends, Meyer and Benny."

Again, she waited. No response -- but Mac did turn his gaze from the window to her.

"Brock was able to pay back the loan within the first couple years because Salvatore frequently came to visit for a few days of fishing and poker, and he always brought his friends."

"Meyer and Benny," he guessed again.

"Among others. Word spread and great-grandpa's business took off."

"Um... you want to slow down? Those are nasty looking curves up ahead."

Good. He was a little too confident for his own good, and a healthy dose of nervous might be good for him. She wasn't nervous. She had complete faith in her driving skills, having negotiated River Road her entire life, but she felt no need to share that tidbit with this stranger. Let him wonder for now.  

"That's what is known as the Dragon's Lair -- a series of four curves, sharp switchbacks really -- at the northern end of the lake. You have to know what you're doing if you go faster than the speed limit," she said and eased down on the accelerator.

"I damn sure hope you do," Mac said sharply.

She hid a smile when he reached for the grab-handle above the passenger's seat, and she kept both hands firmly on the wheel as she negotiated the series of hairpin curves. She wondered why she had shared so much of her family history with a perfect stranger. She could've let Mac think the treasure was the lake and been done with the subject.

Vern trusted this stranger, and so did Garth. Oddly enough, Cory's own gut instinct told her she could trust this man, too. Yet it was more than that. Inexplicable though it was, she felt as though she'd known this quiet stranger for years. The moment she'd laid eyes on him, she'd experienced a strange sense of connection and relief as though something missing had been found. She had the oddest sense that Mac was here for a reason -- something right, not something wrong.

And so when he asked, she shared the rest of the tale.

 

*****

 

Cory hesitated so long, Mac wondered if she'd tell the truth or fabricate some tale. He knew the Bel Tesoro legend like the back of his hand, having heard the tale numerous times over the years of his friendship with Blue. Usually when Blue got good and drunk -- and homesick for his little sister.

Blue thought the sun rose and set just for Cory and had always said the worst part of the Black Ops work they did wasn't the danger, but leaving her behind. He'd felt forced to cast her out of his life for her own safety, settling for a half-dozen covert trips back to town to check on her. Mac had always come along -- and regretted it afterward, for he could never get the little spitfire out of his mind.

She stared at him briefly as she slowed for an approaching curve. His heart hammered out a couple beats. Had she recognized him? She returned her gaze to the road, and he blew out a silent sigh of relief.

He decided to prod. "So what about the beautiful treasure. If it wasn't the lake..."

He watched her shoulders go back, and she took a deep breath.

Here we go.

"Brock expanded to ten cabins with the extra business, but Benny and Salvatore didn't come back for a while due to run-ins with the law back in New York."

"What sort of run-ins?" he dutifully asked.

Cory smiled then, and Mac felt a wave a relief knowing she trusted him with the truth. He could've dug up the legend from anyone in town, but it meant more coming from her.

"By that time, Salvatore had changed his name to Charles Luciano -- Charles "Lucky" Luciano -- and Benjamin went by the nickname of Bugsy. Meyer was always Meyer."

He hoped the appropriate amount of shock showed in his expression. "You can't be serious. You mean Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky?"

"Exactly the same."

He gave a low whistle.

"Guests wanted to rent Lucky Luciano's cabin even back then."

"But that doesn't explain the treasure."

She slid him a sultry sideways glance and maneuvered more switchbacks. "Patience, Mac. I'm telling this story."

He put his head back and hooted with laughter. The smart remark was all Cory. The sexy glance was not.

"So tell it already."

"Lucky and Bugsy had become too powerful for their mob boss Joe Masseria, and they set up his assassination, so they could steal his rackets. Lucky stole everything in Masseria's safe and hid the stash from their rival boss Maranzano. Legend has it that Lucky put the stash in a trunk and brought it here on vacation shortly after the assassination to keep it safe."

"And people think the trunk is buried at Bel Tesoro?" Mac scoffed. Blue had believed that very thing or so he always said.

"There or in the lake."

"Who would bury a treasure and go off and leave it and never come back?" he needled.

He liked the sound of her voice and wanted her to keep going. She made a great storyteller.

"I thought the same thing," she agreed.

"So you don't believe the legend?"

"I believe it enough to keep it going to make guests want to come to Bel Tesoro for a visit and see for themselves."

"A business woman then." He chuckled. "So there's no real treasure."

"I didn't say that."

She shot him another one of those sultry glances that caused a heaviness in his groin. Hell, that hadn't taken long, despite all the promises he'd made to himself that he had gotten over Cory.

"Legend and folks say he was saving the stash for his pension, and in 1936, when he was about to be arrested in New York for running a prostitution ring, he headed out here to grab the stash. Unfortunately, he made a stop in Hot Springs, Arkansas and was immediately fingered by a New York detective there on assignment. Lucky went to prison for ten years, and when his sentence was commuted, he was deported to Italy and never got the chance to come back and get his treasure."

"And he couldn't send someone for it?"

"Evidently not." She grinned. "I wondered about the same thing myself. Maybe he didn't have anyone he could trust."

Clark Lumber was just ahead at the edge of town, and Mac felt a keen disappointment that the pleasant ride was at an end. Not good. He needed to keep his distance. He was here in a professional capacity only.

No thinking. No feeling. And absolutely no memories.

 

*****

 

Cory pulled the pickup truck into the Clark Lumber parking lot and steered over to the loading dock area. Forklifts moved about in the cavernous warehouse beyond. Her gaze swept longingly to the outdoor fenced area displaying a large assortment of brick, block, and pavers. Her imagination swelled with ideas for brick and paver walkways at the resort.

"Are we getting out?" Mac teased.

She cut the ignition and climbed out. He followed, shutting an unhappy Garth inside the cab with the window partway down. The owner Hal Delaney was at Cory's side moments later.

Hal gave her a hug. "What can we do for you today, Cory?"

Hal was a big man with a big belly in constant movement since he laughed all the time. He was one of Cory's favorites, and she wondered at the scowl on Mac, so she introduced him.

"Hal, this is Mac, our new temporary help at the resort."

Mac's head swung her way at the word temporary. Well, he was.

"Good to meet you, Mac," Hal said good-naturedly and gave his hand a good hard shake.

"We're here for replacement boards for the lake dock," Cory told Hal. "And I'd like to look at some of your pavers." Maybe she could afford just a few, say for a walkway between the main house and the rear garden.

Hal whistled for one of his warehousemen and told him to help Mac. "You know how many boards and what size?" Hal asked Mac.

He nodded and Cory raised her brows.

"Vern told me." He followed Hal's man into the warehouse.

Hal escorted Cory to the fenced brickyard. "Any idea what you're looking for?" he asked and swung an arm wide.

"You know my tight budget. I'm just going to browse for a while."

Hal's belly jiggled with his chuckle. "You're the only woman I know who's happy browsing in a brickyard. I'll leave you to it. Let me know if I can be of help."

Hal would surely help and give her a deep discount while doing it. One of her father's best friends, Hal had always looked out for Cory and her tight budget with imagined one-day sales, so her pride would not be pricked. If it hadn't been for Hal and others around town, she may have had to close the resort in recent years, at least for a few months each year anyway. But so far, so good. She almost wished there really was a Luciano treasure buried somewhere at Bel Tesoro.

She wandered into the brickyard and down the rows of pavers, stopping near the end of one aisle to eye some gorgeous mauve-colored stones. She visualized a dozen of these beauties leading the path off the back porch at the main house and out to the rear garden beyond.

"Well, if it isn't my little girlfriend, Cory," a deep nasally voice said behind her.

All of her excitement over the pavers whooshed out of her in one hard exhale. She turned around slowly to face Al Cannoli.

I'm not your girlfriend, Aldo," she said, knowing he hated anyone using his given name.

Al's brother Salvatore, or Sal, stood right behind him. At a hair under six feet, the identical twins resembled a pair of defensive tackles. One could always tell Sal from Al by the extra ten pounds he carried, that and his trademark bibb overalls. The twins ran a hunting and fishing guide service out of their run-down farm. The rest of the time you could find them in the employ of Percy Standish, Sr. They did whatever Senior asked of them.

Al ignored her response and stepped closer. "Whatcha shopping for?"

She didn't like being here. The tall stacks of bricks blocked any view of the loading dock and parking area. Sal blocked the exit aisle from the fenced yard.

"I was just looking, and now I'm done, so let me by. I'm ready to leave."

She stepped forward and Al shifted into her path, Sal staying behind him.

"I left messages at the resort for you to call me. A bunch of them."

"Twelve to be exact," she replied and regretted her comment when the overstuffed Italian grinned.

"Keepin' track, are you? So you can brag to all your girlfriends?" He cast a smug grin back at Sal who shook with his chuckle.

"No, the messages are scattered on my desk. I haven't called because I'm busy." She stepped sideways and the big lug moved with her.

"Aldo, please step aside and let me pass. You, too, Salvatore."

Sal moved over. Al did not.

"The name's Al." His accompanying scowl looked dark enough to make her rethink antagonizing him further.

"Okay... Al... Please let me by. I have to pay Hal for my lumber."

"I want to take you out Friday night," he growled, ignoring her plea.

That brought her up short. What to do now? She didn't like the look in his eyes.

"I have p-plans," she managed.

"You're right. You do." He stepped closer. "With me."

"No, I don't." She'd had enough and gave him a two-handed shove to the chest. "Back up and let me by."

She startled him enough she actually pushed him back a whole step, but he quickly recovered and grabbed her hands.

"Let her go."

Mac appeared right behind Sal. How had he gotten so close without making a sound?

"Who're you?" Al sneered.

Sal turned to face Mac, ready to back up his brother.

"He's my new short help," Cory said quickly and tried to pull free.

Al tightened his hold. "Butt out, mister. This don't concern you."

"I'm only going to tell you one more time," Mac said in a low voice. "Let Cory go."

Her new help reminded her of a panther ready to pounce, but these were Cannolis -- two of them -- and Sal's hands were already balled into fists. Mac wouldn't stand a chance.

"And I told you--" Al started.

"What the hell's going on here?"

Cory peered around Al to see Percy Standish, Jr. shoulder past Mac and stalk toward her and Al. Known as Junior to the whole town, the younger Standish still insisted on being called by his middle name, William, and today Cory gladly accommodated him.

"I'm glad you're here, William. Al won't let me out of the brick yard."

A thinner version of his father, Junior rounded on Al. "What's wrong with you? My father hired you to pick up lumber for the Lodge fence repair not to accost defenseless women."

Cory bridled at that remark, but let it pass when Al released her.

"Now you two git," Junior ordered and surprisingly the two lugs backed off. "You're lucky I don't tell my father."

Al looked more curious than worried by Junior's threat, but he kept moving.

Junior grabbed her by the shoulders. "Are you all right?"

She let out a deep sigh. "Now, I am -- thanks to you."

She heard what sounded like a growl from Mac, but Junior clamped one arm around her shoulders and steered her out of the fenced area.

"Al's getting worse," Cory told him as they walked toward her truck. "He wants me to go out with him, and he won't take no for an answer."

She could see her pickup was already loaded, and Hal waited at the tailgate.

"I'll talk to him," Junior offered. "He needs the Lodge work my father gives them to make ends meet."

Cory put a hand on his arm. "Don't say anything to him yet. I flat-out told him no today, so maybe he'll get the message."

Mac snorted behind them and muttered, "Guys like him don't ever get the message."

They'd reached the truck, and Junior turned to Mac and held out a hand. "In all that fuss back there, we didn't get properly introduced. Hal tells me you're Cory's new handyman. I'm William Standish."

Mac gave his hand a couple quick shakes.

"Thanks for looking out for our Cory until I could get there to rescue her," Junior told Mac and squeezed Cory's shoulders.

Mac's expression darkened.

"Problem?" Hal wanted to know.

"Just Al being Al," Junior said and shrugged. "I'll see y'all later."

He sauntered to the other end of the loading dock where the Cannolis were alternating between stacking fence boards in the back of their pickup and glaring holes in Mac.

Cory paid Hal and climbed in her pickup, trying not to notice the scowl darkening Mac's face.

 

*****

 

Mac stared out the window and tried to rein in his temper. Seeing those same two Neanderthals he and Blue had tangled with on their last trip to Clark had stunned him for only a beat or two. To hell with them if they had recognized him. Seeing them harassing Cory had made Mac see red. It was all he could do not to charge in and knock their two hard heads together.

Or worse. Frogmen could always do worse.

Yet the two elephant bookends hadn't recognized him from that night long ago when he and Blue had come undercover to Clark to check on Cory. Following her to Opie's Tavern one night, he and Blue had witnessed the two Cannolis pestering Cory in the bar. Mac had lost it and almost broken their cover. Blue held him back at the last minute when the bartender came to Cory's rescue and ran the two pachyderms off.

That hadn't saved the Cannolis. For Blue and Mac waited for the twins when they left the bar later. Only intending to warn off the Neanderthals, he and Blue were forced to settle the incident with fists when Al took the first swing and Sal immediately lumbered into the melee thereafter.

Yet, nothing had stoked the embers of Mac's anger nearly as much as that slick William Standish who had slithered around Mac to rescue Cory at the lumberyard. Now he'd seen both William and Standish Senior in action, and the word slimy came to mind at the thought of the father-and-son pair. If that wasn't bad enough, he could swear William's voice matched the wuss he'd overheard in the hotel last night bribing the night clerk, which fit since the guy was plotting to scam papers from his father's office.

And Cory thought the little dweeb was wonderful.

He turned away from the wooded scenery flying past. "So how long have you known William?"

Cory startled a bit and shot him a quick glance. His voice had been sharper than he'd intended.

"Actually, he's Junior to everyone in town, his dad being Senior and all."

"Junior? You called him William."

"I was being nice because he was saving me from Al."

Mac stifled the growl that started in his throat. "I had things under control."

She shot him a curious glance. "Sure you did, but the Cannolis work for Senior Standish a lot, so Junior could yank their chains easier."

You haven't seen me yank chains.

"So how long?" he asked instead.

Another curious glance. "Years. We went through middle and high school here together. He was a year ahead of me though," she clarified. "He's a good friend."

"My guess is William, or Junior, thinks he's a better friend than most."

"You caught that, did you?"

He swung around to stare at her. "You know he does?"

She shot him a sheepish smile. "He's asked me out a dozen times or two over the years."

Mac clenched his jaw to keep the expletive in and turned back to the window. Why was he getting so mad? What did he care if Junior asked Cory out a hundred times? She didn't mean anything to him.

Right. And neither did that night in the moonlight on my last visible trip to Clark.

"Hal was worried about you, too," he said. "Looks like everyone in town is looking after you."

She smiled. "I have nice friends, and I'm glad Junior intervened. The Cannolis had you badly outnumbered and outweighed, and they love a good fight."

His gut twisted. "I told you--"

"I know. I know. You had things under control."

Mac didn't know which he hated worse -- the smug look on her face, thinking she was right or the fact she really believed the little punk Junior had saved her. He'd have to give that some thought when Vern took him over to the Lodge to pick up his rig. For now, he needed to keep his focus on his mission.