Disclaimers found in part 1

Chapter 15

"Melinda, we need you for a few minutes. Before the rest. Please?"

President Smith moved to grasp the door behind her allowing her to enter ahead of him. She moved, but stopped when his hand landed on her shoulder. Glancing up, she caught a barely noticeable shake of his head, and then he dropped his hand and she moved into the conference room.

Melinda scanned the other faces in the room trying to get a feel for the next several minutes. Gobal looked like he had a bad case of indigestion, his face remote and pensive. Even the usually smiling Cassidy looked unapproachable. The widow looked vaguely sick, though she spared a faint smile as Melinda pulled out the empty chair and sat next to her.

"I want this settled." Collier turned to Smith. "We still have an issue with Dr. Cuthridge. I recommend immediate dismissal."

"Not a reprimand?" Cassidy was still disturbed. 

When Smith cast his glance to Melinda, she realized that they had waited until they could also have her input, since she had removed herself from the candidate selection process. Trouble was she didn't feel much more objective about Cuthridge at this point either. Perhaps she could delay the discussion for a few minutes. "Has a decision been reached about who will fill the position?"

Smith nodded, tapping his pencil against a pad. "Covington will be given the Pappas chair."

Despite the swell of pride in her partner for impressing the board and beating the odds, Melinda had to ask it, even as she wanted to cut out her tongue for tempting Fate this blatantly. "You're justifying his actions?"

Smith shook his head. "We are very impressed with the young doctor and believe she will be the better asset for the university."

Melinda glanced at Gobal and saw his frown, brief though it was. "A majority decision?"

Cassidy laid her hand over Melinda's. "We thought you would be pleased."

Mel withdrew her hand. God, Janice, forgive me. She stood and tried to explain her position. "It's... not about me. It's about what's best for this institution." She took a deep breath. "My father spent twenty five years here, as part of the fabric of this community. The one thing he always held in high regard was personal integrity. Honesty and compassion were paramount, for his students and for his colleagues. These were uppermost in his mind every day. That's why he had the trusts established. That's why I took his place on a dozen voluntary boards. I didn't do it to enhance any agenda or myself. I didn't do it because it would allow me to put my friends in high places. I did it... to honor my father's memory and the work he devoted his life to." She looked back at the board. "So if you chose Janice Covington for any reason other than she was absolutely the best candidate for the position, I will ask you to drop it now."

"Everyone here admired your father a great deal. We are trying to honor him with this choice." Collier gestured. "Melinda, sit down. We honestly found your friend's impromptu lecture engaging, dynamic, and filled with all the sorts of things your father would have exactly admired. She's the candidate we want."

Finally Smith cleared his throat. "Now, what do we do about Cuthridge? We had a motion for dismissal. Discussion?"

This portion, prelude to a voice vote, was familiar. Melinda shifted from emotion to logic and listened to the arguments on both sides.

"He leaves for sabbatical in January," Rachel Dumont began. "It seems pointless..."

"Dr. Cuthridge has show a flagrant disregard for our procedures." Collier shook his head.

"But Dr. Covington was the better choice," Tyler Jameson mused. "He was right."

"Irrelevant," Collier retorted. "Procedures are established. He broke them."

"Dr. Collier, you were a professor once," Rachel reasoned once more.

"Which is exactly why I want him out. Dr. Covington can cover his classes and assume her full duties in the spring semester. Otherwise he sets a precedent others will exploit."

"You sound like the faculty is just poised for a reason to overthrow us, Beau," Cassidy admonished. "Certainly this doesn't warrant Gestapo tactics. A written reprimand should suffice. He's an academic, not a revolutionary. He got a little carried away with his desire to serve his students."

Melinda shook her head. "I don't believe he got carried away. Dr. Cuthridge knew what he was doing, and that it was not just unorthodox, but wrong."

Cassidy studied her for a long moment. "You had a discussion with him? You know this for a fact?"

"We... had words. It took some effort to convince him to bring himself to President Smith." She removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose delicately, trying to ease the tension she was feeling. Replacing her glasses, she realized everyone was waiting for her to continue. She looked at Smith. "He spoke with you. That is what prompted this meeting, isn't it?"

Smith nodded. "I thought the fairest resolution would be to bring everyone back together and make the decisions as a group. Cuthridge understood he would be reprimanded in some fashion. Perhaps it only remains for us to decide the manner of it."

Melinda agreed. "All right. What options are available?"

"Written reprimand certainly." Melinda thought it was Mr. Terrence Johns, the board's least vocal member, who offered that. She thought it perfectly in tune with his unobtrusive nature that he would prefer to avoid a panel in front of the faculty board.

"What about his sabbatical? Can we take it away? Or alter it somehow?" This suggestion came from Gobal.

"Perhaps if he goes without funding..." Collier nodded at his own idea. "That would send perhaps the strongest message."

Mrs. Dumont nodded. "I can see that."

"All right. Then I move for an end to discussion. I call for a vote." Mrs. Zeigmacht watched Melinda shift in her seat.

Smith nodded. "Anyone second?"

"I second," she said, her voice sounding small in the brief silence that had fallen. Janice, I hope you'll understand.

"The choices for reprimand are written censure, or a non-paid sabbatical," Smith picked up the thread, his eyes a little surprised. He called each person by name.

Mr. Gobal: "Non-paid sabbatical."

Dr. Collier: "No pay."

Mrs. Dumont: "Censure."

Mr. Jameson: "Pass." He looked significantly toward Melinda.

Mr. Johns: "Censure."

Mrs. Zeigmacht: "Written censure." Melinda watched Cassidy frown noticeably before leaning back once more.

Miss Pappas: "Non-paid sabbatical." She weathered the surprised expressions with her gaze fixed only on Smith, who had addressed her.

"Mr. Jameson? Have you made a decision?" Smith prompted the young man in a voice Melinda realized held hope that he wouldn't be responsible for having to break a tie.

"I vote for... the sabbatical option." He cast a confused look at Melinda but then returned his eyes to Smith. "Sir."

Cassidy interjected. "Hopefully, Dr. Cuthridge will be inclined to explain himself before he leaves. It bothers me that we don't really have his reasons, just hearsay."

"All right. Well, let's give the news. Send in Doctors Covington and Lipton," Smith said.

Harold Gobal stepped to the door and called the two inside. They settled into chairs opposite one another at the end of the table, quiet and pensive. Smith then directed his attention to Dr. Collier, the older man briefly taking a steadying moment to straighten his clothes as he stood. 

"We could use a person as both adjunct and to fill the endowed chair. The history department is among our most popular studies areas. However the fact is the money is not there for both positions." He gestured to Melinda, who dropped her eyes briefly. "Thanks to the Pappas Fund we have an endowed chair. The recipient has very specific requirements, in leadership, experience, publication, and supervision of student research." He circled around behind his chair, bracing his hands on the straight back's top edge. His gaze bored into Janice and he took a deep breath. "It is very unusual, but this board has decided -- by majority decision -- to award the post to you, Dr. Covington."

Janice gasped, then stifled herself with a hand across her mouth, studying faces in rapid succession. Melinda could easily discern the excitement dancing in Janice's eyes. She felt her heart squeeze in empathy.

"Thank you, Dr. Smith. I hope to serve this institution well."

"Dr. Lipton, your application and resume will remain on file. If we have another opening, we would like to retain you for consideration."

Drawing his dark blonde brows together, Lipton pushed to his feet. With exceptional dignity, Melinda realized, he nodded his head. "That is your decision."

"Thank you both for your time today."

Taking that as their cue to leave, Janice and Ted Lipton walked out together.

"Call Cuthridge in." Mrs. Dumont, closest to the entry, stood quietly and summoned the British professor with a gesture as she briefly held the door.

The academician entered and stood silently at the end of the table, his hands laced calmly before him.

The university president looked from Collier to Rachel Dumont then to Cassidy Zeigmacht on his left. Then he began. "Dr. Cuthridge, through your actions, we have been brought to this pass. The rules of this institution exist for a reason." He looked away from the professor and glanced at Cassidy. "Some of us would appreciate an explanation of your actions before judgment is passed."

Basil began quietly. "I have served this university and its students for fifteen years. Perhaps I could claim loss of my faculties. Perhaps you would even believe it."

He paused. "A member of your own body reminded me that I should have come to you in the beginning. I did not." He glanced briefly up to Smith. "Had I been included in the search for my replacement, perhaps my decisions would have been different."

Gobal challenged. "Would you do this again?"

"Harold!" Rachel Dumont's exclamation briefly drew everyone's eyes away from Cuthridge.

"No," the businessman stormed, identifying Cuthridge with a resolute finger. "Would you do such a thing again, sir?"

There was a calm forthrightness to his reply when the professor finally spoke. "Sir, I can honestly say I doubt that such a situation will ever arise again." He looked at Smith. "What is the board's decision?"

Requested directly, Smith did not dissemble. Melinda could see Cuthridge nodding even as the decision was voiced. "By majority decision Dr. Cuthridge, you are hereby granted your sabbatical period to begin immediately... without pay."

Silence seeped into every corner of the room before Cuthridge cleared his throat and thanked them. "I appreciate your fairness."

"This meeting is adjourned."

The room's occupants rose almost at once. Melinda paused as Cuthridge approached. He offered her his hand. "Miss Pappas."

"Doctor." His hand warmed hers. She had not realized how chilled she had become over the stress. Removing her hand, she watched him walk out. His shoulders moved strongly under his jacket. A man at peace with his decisions, he lifted his hat from the tabletop and settled it on his head with economy. Mel looked away only as the door clicked shut behind him.

She resettled her coat over her shoulders only to look up and see Mrs. Zeigmacht and Tyler Jameson both approaching.

"Melinda?" Cassidy's concern was evident. Melinda instead shook her head and backed up from the table.

"I'm all right, Mrs. Z."

"Miss Melinda?"

"Yes?" Mel did not feel quite like dealing with Tyler, but schooled her expression to politeness.

"Despite everything, I have to say I was surprised by your vote."

She settled her hat carefully before answering. "He knew what he was doing," she said, meaning Cuthridge.

He nodded. After a moment, Tyler asked, "Would you, and Dr. Covington, consider attending our dinner party on Sunday? We can... welcome her properly to the community."

If she'll still want to speak to me, Melinda thought. "All right, Tyler. I will ask her."

"Thank you." He grasped her hand and then dropped it, turning and leaving Cassidy alone with Melinda.

The older woman stood between Melinda and the door. "Yes, ma'am?" she asked politely.

"You have much integrity for one so young," the widow complimented quietly. "This town's future would benefit a great deal."

Melinda shook her head, realizing the older woman was back to encouraging her to spread political wings. "Not right now. I couldn't divide my attention anymore."

Zeigmacht patted her arm. "I know, dear. But I will keep trying." She laughed low and stepped aside, letting Melinda pass finally. "I'll see you, and Dr. Covington, at the Jameson party."

Smiling carefully, Melinda turned away. "I look forward to it," she offered dryly, knowing that the widow really was not going to give up. Melinda's actions today had only strengthened the older woman's arguments about her innate traits carrying over to elected office. She sighed and left the conference room.

Immediately her eyes scanned for a familiar blonde head. Her heart sank when she saw Janice and Dr. Cuthridge's heads bent close together. Tension lines were clearly visible in the tanned face. He was talking and from the storm cloud gathering in Janice's features, Melinda knew he was imparting the board's decision.

Melinda wondered if she would be painted favorably or unfavorably in the professor's retelling. After her decisiveness inside the board room, she discovered her lack of desire to discern the answer to her question unsettling and waited until Cuthridge had moved off, heading for the exit stairs, before she moved forward to join Janice.

Why couldn't her heart and her head agree on what was right?

Chapter 16

"Will you be leaving town immediately?" she asked quietly.

Cuthridge nodded. "It might be best."

"I still need to get those notes on Cromwell from you," she reminded him.

"I haven't forgotten." Basil's eyes met hers briefly and she knew he saw the disturbance in them. "Relax. You're in. Everything turned out the way it should."

"You were effectively suspended. You couldn't have meant for that to happen?" He slowly shook his head. Janice nodded tightly. "All right. Though... please don't leave town without saying goodbye."

He did smile then. "I promise." With a display of gravity, he shook her hand and turned on his heel, walking away.

Janice bit her lip, watching him go. Then she felt a presence at her back. Turning around, she faced Rachel Dumont who offered her a dainty hand. "Doctor Covington, please accept my congratulations."

"Thank you very much, Mrs. Dumont. I will endeavor to remain true to the faith you have all placed in me."

"Of course you will, dear." Janice nodded as the older woman left her side to accept Mr. Gobal's escort to her automobile.

Doctor Collier walked up quietly, having separated from Gobal as he left with Mrs. Dumont. "Dr. Covington, you were really quite engaging."

"Anything to keep my students' interest, sir." She smiled and was pleased to see his face crack just the smallest of smiles in return.

"Just so. Just so," he murmured, walking away.

Amused by his reaction, she looked away from him and smiled amusedly, finding herself caught in penetrating gray eyes. "Mrs. Zeigmacht," she greeted gently. She wondered if her barely contained laugh had been observed.

"So you're Melinda's European friend," the older woman mused. Somehow on some level, she realized Cassidy Zeigmacht also had overheard Collier and reacted similarly herself. There was a dancing light in her eyes that drew Janice into a familiar circle of warmth.

The sensation relaxed her. "Actually I'm from Philadelphia. My work took me to Europe. But I'm afraid I've been out of Philadelphia circles for some time." Mrs. Zeigmacht's gray eyes shaded lighter and widened in question. Janice elaborated. "I suffered wanderlust early. My first dig... outside of my grandmother's rose garden... was a Celtic dig two miles northeast of Surrey, England in '29."

"You are quite a find, Dr. Covington."

The quip made Janice chuckle softly. "Thank you." She accepted the woman's hand gently and then followed a few steps as the older woman left.

Melinda finally approached. The brunette seemed a bit shell-shocked, she assessed, noting the careful set of her shoulders and the way her eyes scanned Janice. The blonde took the burden of the silence between them and spoke first. "Hi."

"Hello." There was a strain to the single word. Then Melinda inhaled sharply. "Are you ready to leave?"

Janice didn't have an opportunity to respond. The young man Tyler Jameson--Janice hoped she remembered correctly--stopped alongside them. "Dr. Covington, I... was amazed at your energetic presentation."

"Thank you, Mr. Jameson."

"Please, call me Tyler. Melinda and I, after all, are friends."

She caught his adoring glance over to her partner. "Yes, of course. Mist--Tyler. Please call me Janice."

Tearing his eyes from Melinda, Jameson beamed at her. "Could I presumptuously invite you to my family home? We are having a dinner party on Sunday afternoon."

"Melinda?" Janice saw her friend nod tightly. "I'm honored by the invitation. Thank you."

His face lit up, transforming a serious rather plain face into one with handsome bright features. His brown eyes danced and his hand came up quickly to shake hers. "I look forward to it. Cocktails begin at four o'clock."

Janice was caught up in his enthusiasm and offered a warm smile of her own back before he strode away, a perceptible bounce to his step as he shrugged into his overcoat and tugged on his cap as he pushed out the door.

"Looks like you made another friend." Melinda's voice broke the silence behind her. "We'll probably want to go shopping tomorrow for something for you to wear."

Janice shrugged into her borrowed coat and felt the absence of her hat strongly as she watched Melinda press her own onto her head. "Yes. Time for me to dress the part."

Out on the sidewalk the mid-afternoon sun and breeze conspired to whip her hair and dance colorful leaves around them both. "Mel?" Janice asked as they both settled into the car.


"Are you going to be all right?"

"Yes, of course. I'm fine."

Janice was skeptical. "Are you upset that they cut off Dr. Cuthridge?"

About to put the key in the ignition, Melinda stopped and turned to Janice. Her blue eyes were troubled, but her tone was certain. "No. It was the right thing to do."

"You sound like you mean that." Janice tried to bite back her disappointment. She had hoped that Melinda had not voted with the majority.

"I do."

Janice considered the possible arguments. "I know he went around the rules, but don't you agree that a professor deserves some input into his replacement?"

Organizing her thoughts, Melinda set the car in motion. "Whether I do or not wasn't the point. People can't just go around the rules any time they feel like it."

Pursing her lips in dismay, Janice countered, "So would you have rather they just selected Dr. Lipton? Not have conducted the second interviews at all?"

This reaction was exactly what Melinda had feared when she spoke up in the meeting. "Janice, please... understand that I am happy that the board appointed you to the position. I saw Lipton's file. I found him lacking. Objectively. But the objective was procedurally obtaining a replacement for a professor leaving on sabbatical. I'm very angry that Cuthridge didn't see how much his actions could have endangered your reputation." She spared a glance at Janice, who had turned away and leaned against the passenger window, watching the scenery pass.

Working out the issues in her mind the archaeologist knew that she could never really blame anyone, least of all Melinda, who had, as she said, operated objectively. It was one of the brunette's qualities Janice liked most. She knew she got too emotional on occasions herself. She inhaled and let it out slowly.

"I wouldn't have blamed you if I didn't get the job," Janice said finally, turning her gaze to study Mel, who focused only ahead while driving down the road. "In fact, because you challenged things, I have the security of knowing that I really did earn this myself." She slid her hand down Melinda's arm until she lightly clasped the back of the long fingers curled around the gearshift. "That means everything to me." 

The brunette's expression, blue eyes unwavering and a muscle twitching in her cheek, did not change. Janice leaned across the space and brushed her lips over Mel's cheek. She brushed her fingers over the other woman's jaw. "I love you. Every noble inch of you." The expected blush pleased Janice immensely. At least the brunette wasn't moping any longer.

She patted Mel's hand before she settled back into the seat once more. "So... were you ever going to tell me Tyler Jameson is sweet on you?"

"We weren't talking about Tyler."

"I figured it was time for a change in subject." Janice shook her head. Continuing mildly, she ruminated, "He seems like a nice fellow."

"I suppose." Melinda's tone was restrained, almost bored.

Janice could tell she was holding something back. "All right. So tell me. How many times has he asked to marry you?"

The brunette shook her head. "Not counting the years we were in grade school? Probably a dozen."

With it said so bluntly, Janice couldn't help it. She laughed. "Why didn't you ever say yes? He absolutely adores you."

"Because I don't love him. He's just a friend."

"It's nice to have friends."

Sharing smiles, the two women rode the rest of the way to Beaufort Oaks in silence.

Janice leaned on the upper porch railing watching the moonlight reflect on the lake ripples, pondering everything that had transformed her life that day. The full moon made her think of full days to come and hopeful expectations. She smiled, lingering over the new joys to come. Students who would look to her for guidance, divining the paths of history through the writings of those who lived it, books, papers, conversations. Life was certainly better when those things were included, she thought.

A light dinner of soup and sandwiches sat happily on her stomach. Footsteps sounded behind her and she glanced over her sweater-wrapped shoulders. "Hi."

"Are you coming inside?" Melinda, bundled with a down blanket over her shoulders, leaned on the doorway, studying her. "It's getting cold."

Janice squeezed the railing and stretched her shoulders and back muscles with catlike content. "Soon. I... You know this is the first time I've really set down roots in any place?"

Melinda grasped her around the waist from behind, letting the smaller woman absorb the warmth. "Well you did it."

Janice turned and wrapped her arms around the other woman's waist, dropping her head into the soft chest and inhaling deeply. "Yeah, I did."

Breathing into the fragrant blonde hair, Melinda tugged her toward the door. "Come on. I have chocolate and milk about to scald on the stove."

Wrapped around each other they retreated inside the house and down to the kitchen.

The clouds shifted in front of the moon as two shadows moved across the lawn toward the lake.

Errands on Friday brought Janice and Melinda into the heart of downtown Raleigh, on the other side from the university campus. First she opened a small account at the bank.

The bank manager, a Mr. Thomas Willoughby by the placard next to his door, stepped out of his office when his secretary informed him, "Miss Pappas has business, sir."

He gestured the two young women, Miss Pappas whom he knew and the slight blonde whom he did not, into his office. "How may I be of service to you today, Miss Pappas?" He fingered the inside lapel of his double-breasted brown suit and studied the taller of the two women, an almost cherubic smile on his plump face.

Melinda passed over a set of papers then gestured to her left. "This is Doctor Janice Covington, newly appointed to the Pappas chair at the university. I would like to see that the fund disbursements begin."

"Everything meets the requirements, I presume?" He settled a pair of wire-frames on his nose and glanced at the papers.

"Yes, sir. The board approved her yesterday. She will have to begin immediately since another professor is departing on sabbatical. Will there be any problems?"

He studied the papers and gestured. "Anything for you, my dear." He paused and looked up at the slender blonde, who seemed terribly young for such a vaunted position, but among the papers in his hands was her resume, quite impressive. "Welcome to Raleigh, Mi-- Doctor Covington."

"Thank you." Janice accepted his offered hand graciously and settled back once again into her seat.

"Let's take care of the applications." He fished in his desk for a set of forms. "I'll need your residence, both where you will make your home and at the university, phone numbers as well. We'll open the account with the first scheduled transfer from the Pappas fund." He stood after passing her the papers. "I shall return in few moments."

Janice accepted a pen and then, with careful intent, scanned the documents and began filling in the requested information. Janice Amelia Covington. Birthdate: April 29, 1913. Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mother's Maiden name: Franklin. Occupation: Professor. Workplace: North Carolina University, Raleigh. She paused at the home residence address. "Melinda, are you sure you want me to use Beaufort Oaks?"

The brunette answered with assurance. "I am positive, Janice... Unless you want to move out, I'd like you to stay."

So the blonde wrote in the plantation's route address and telephone number, before sitting back and awaiting Mr. Willoughby's return. They didn't have long to wait. Bearing another set of papers Willoughby returned only after another minute or two. "Miss Pappas, these are the disbursement authorizations. You'll have to sign them before we can transfer any funds to the active account."

"Certainly." He showed her where and with a brief controlled flourish, Melinda signed. He turned to Janice. "Miss--Doctor?" He paused in embarrassment.

She smiled pleasantly, quick to ease his discomfort. "It's all right, Mr. Willoughby. I'm not offended. You may call me Miss. Even Janice will do." 

"Thank you," he replied. He pointed out the home address on the paperwork she had completed. "Is this address correct?"

"Yes, sir." She held his gaze with a deprecating smile. "Miss Pappas was kind enough to let me stay with her and her mother until I find someplace on my own."

He cast a quick glance at Melinda, who said nothing, remaining still and meeting his gaze evenly. Looking away from the brunette, he returned his gaze to the blonde. "If everything is in order, perhaps you would appreciate a few draft notes as an advance?"

Janice nodded. "I do have a bit of shopping to do," she answered. "Recent travels have depleted my personal funds."

"Then right this way, Miss Covington." He held the door for her and Melinda, who stood quickly and followed behind. The clicking of adding machines and quiet voices at the furthest teller station were the only noises in the entire bank lobby. Willoughby led them to the second teller station and pushed through a single sheet. "Miss Covington will need drafts on her account, Miss Hillyard."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Willoughby." The young woman behind the glass and bars looked up from beneath tidily restrained brown curls at her employer as well as her new customers.

Leaving the women together, Willoughby retreated once again to his office. The simple frame door clicked shut.

"Miss Covington?"

"Yes." The blonde drew her attention back to the teller. "Twenty dollars please." The amount would certainly buy her at least a pair of blouses and a skirt, as well as new shoes and a small proper dressing hat. And it would leave just enough for her to treat Melinda to a modest lunch.

"I'll leave you at the store, since I have another errand to run," Melinda said as they stepped once more into the sunshine and breeze, Janice carefully tucking her new funds away.

"Meet me at the lunch counter in Woolworth's in about an hour?" Janice inquired, gesturing to the small drugstore across the street.

Leaving Janice in the aisles at the clothier, Melinda quickly walked across the street to the corner grocer. By chance since the other woman was retrieving dinner for her family that evening, Melinda met up with Maryann Smith, the university president's wife, and brought her for lunch. 

After introductions and orders, Maryann welcomed Janice to the university family. "Have you had an opportunity to meet anyone else?"

"Mr. Jameson invited us... both, to the dinner party Sunday evening. Will you be attending, ma'am?" Janice asked, sipping her strawberry fizz.

"Young Mr. Jameson did indeed extend the invitation to my husband and I." Maryann seemed pleased. "I'm surprised, Melinda. Generally you don't go for such affairs."

"I thought Janice would enjoy making some friends in Raleigh," Melinda answered noncommittally.

"Tyler is quite nice," Janice mused. "I haven't had an opportunity to learn anything about his parents however. Mrs. Smith?"

"The Jamesons are old Raleigh stock; one of the founding families. The family plantation is on the north side of town. At one time I think Beaufort Oaks and Juniper Plantation marched along the same boundary. But time has whittled away at both." She smiled over to Melinda. "Today a small family couldn't possibly manage the old vast holdings. Juniper was originally more than five hundred acres. A good deal of it is now housing and community centers. About one hundred acres is still retained and worked for the family business, tobacco."

"I thought Tyler was a banker," Janice questioned.

"He's head accountant for the company, Jameson Lights."

Janice nodded. "Is the dinner party business or pleasure?"

"With Tyler's father, Justin, everything is business, but Millicent is a remarkable hostess, so most people forgive Justin's enthusiastic if occasionally boorish conversation."

Janice laughed and sipped at her fizz. Melinda remarked, "I know. Just to get Mr. Jameson to be quiet the last time I visited, I agreed to a total of sixteen shares in Jameson stock. Millicent's crepes are addictive," she chuckled. "When my father would go... he had a way of talking Mr. Jameson around to everything but tobacco. It was the most amazing thing. If Mr. Jameson was going to be at a party, or a meeting, or a gathering of any kind, my father was frequently invited too, just to keep the man in check."

"Your father was quite remarkable," Maryann agreed. "You must tell me about your adventure in Europe."

Melinda shrugged. "Not much to tell really. Dr. Covington had written, requesting my father's assistance with several translations. He was..." Janice watched Melinda swallow calmly holding back her emotions, still considerably raw when it came to the man she had adored. "Not available. So I went in his place." If she finished a little too brightly, neither Janice nor Maryann saw fit to comment.

"I must say it came as quite a shock, dear. But you are home now, in one piece. Was the war dreadful?"

"Thankfully the Germans had not fully invaded any of the areas where we traveled. But the situation... was quite uncertain, even at the best of times."

Janice looked up to catch Maryann's delicate shiver as she reacted to Melinda's sparse information. Then she found the older woman's pale eyes on her own face. "Will you be returning to Europe any time soon?"

The blonde shook her head. "With my new position, I won't have to... at least for a short time. Besides, it would be unsafe. While I'm not afraid of a little danger, I am not foolhardy." She looked around, at the view of the street afforded by the drugstore's full-length front windows. "Raleigh is a nice place. And the university will keep me quite busy."

"Certainly you will be looking for your own place shortly. I can direct you to any number of tenement homes near the campus," Maryann offered helpfully.

"I have made arrangements for Janice to remain at Beaufort Oaks," Melinda interjected. "She has agreed to help me go through my father's papers and construct the last few years of his research." She paused and sipped her fizz. "He seemed very close to a breakthrough. I hope to publish his work for him." She nodded to Janice who smiled back briefly. "It'll be easier for us to work together if she is close at hand."

Maryann lifted her napkin and patted her lips daintily. "I suppose I can see that. Your mother still lives with you?"

"She is out of town at the moment," Melinda commented.

"Oh, I hadn't heard." The president's wife regarded Mel and Janice for a brief moment, then nodded. "Do pass along my fond regards when you hear from her next." She glanced at her watch. "Oh my, I have another appointment." She looked to Janice as she stood. "I hope you find your new position enjoyable, Miss... Doctor Covington."

"Thank you, Mrs. Smith. Please extend my thanks to your husband."

"From both of us," Melinda added with a smile.

The older woman discreetly straightened her clothing, slipped her arms into her coat and nodded to both women. "I will do that. Good day to you both."

Chapter 17

The two-story house rose out of the mists of afternoon rain and wind like a mountain on the Moorish plains in Spain. And just as incongruously. The glistening white granite shot skyward, almost glowing because of the effects of the winter thunderstorm.

Thunder sounded and the claw-like tendrils of a thick bolt of lightning hit something in the lower hinterlands behind the house. Janice jumped a bit in surprise as Melinda pulled up to the top of the curved drive and turned off the engine. The blonde pulled her gaze from where the lightning had exploded and rested it on the brunette gathering her umbrella and purse from the seat. Through the gathering steam on the windows, Janice saw two hunched figures bearing umbrellas move quickly from the house, one to each side of the car.

"Are you sure we should've left Vida to come home to an empty house on a night like this?" Janice had seen few storms blow up more quickly or with such ferocity.

Knowing that it was more Janice's nerves about the coming party than a worry over the housekeeper, Melinda patted the blonde's forearm reassuringly. "Beaufort, and Vida, will be fine. So will Juniper. Come on. Once we are inside you'll never hear the storm." Mel slipped out her door and bent against the wind and rain with the careful hand of a servant guiding her back.

Janice took a deep breath and fidgeted with her left heel as she opened the door. Immediately an umbrella sheltered the opening and she found a hand thrust into her face. A male voice, soft and thin offered, "C'mon, miss. I'll take you inside."

There was no sense that he might wish to hurry. Despite the fact that he was likely getting very soaked, the man carefully helped her out of the car, waited as she closed the door and then led her up the walk to the wide-covered porch leading to the huge front entrance. The umbrella was lowered away from both of them and she looked up into dark eyes over a welcoming smile. "Thank you."

"You go right on in, Miss. The folks are expecting you." He turned and she realized he had been posted outside the door, specifically tasked with bringing guests up from their cars.

Melinda's escort too, moved away to the left of the doorway, shaking out the umbrella in his hands. His gaze briefly caught Janice's and she smiled her appreciation of his efforts. Then she nudged at the door, where it was opened by another servant, and entered the house.

She caught sight of Melinda in the process of slipping off her long beige raincoat, into the hands of another servant, a young woman, who settled the coat over a small set of hooks inside a closet door. "We'll dry that for you, miss," the woman said, looking at Janice as she turned back from the closet.

Melinda turned around, lightly settling her hair as she removed her blue broad, soft brim hat. The dinner dress's long skirt swirled around her ankles and the long navy blue sleeves hugged her arms to the wrist.

Janice slid her arms from her coat, and laid it over the young dark woman's outstretched arm. "Thank you," she said. "Your hat too?"

The blonde touched her head, having almost forgotten the white linen hat covering her hair. The round top was encircled with a paisley scarf, tied off to the right side where it sloped down over her ear. Now she unpinned it from her styled blonde curls, and handed it over.

Melinda, who waited for the few seconds it took for this, gestured. "Sounds like everyone's in the ballroom." As Janice stepped up to her, she leaned close and commented, "You should wear dresses more often."

Green glanced up into blue and Janice picked nervously at the simple sheer forest green gown. "I haven't worn a skirt in ages," she whispered back with a wry expression.

Then suddenly Tyler Jameson and an unfamiliar woman were striding quickly up to both of them. "Doctor Covington. Melinda, I'm so glad you could make it." Tyler greeted them and stepped back, cupping his arms around the smaller older woman at his side. "Melinda, of course you know my mother. Mother, this is Dr. Janice Covington, a new professor in the history department at the university. Dr. Covington, this is my mother, Millicent Randall Jameson."

Janice reached for the offered hand and took it lightly, mindful that this was a woman, not a male colleague. She met light brown eyes set in a face elegantly aged with smooth cheeks and a dimple in her chin, but laugh lines around her lips and creases at the corners of her eyes. "Good evening, Mrs. Jameson." She caught the sight of the grand staircase rising mammoth to the second floor with its baroque style railings and its polished Cherrywood steps amid clean whitewash paint. "You have a lovely home. Thank you very much for the invitation."

"We are always interested in welcoming the new arrivals in town," Mrs. Jameson responded with a formal air. "Please, come into the ballroom and meet the rest of the guests. Dinner will be announced in an hour."

"Thank you," Janice responded sincerely, finding herself between Tyler and Millicent with Melinda on Tyler's right arm. They passed under an archway and Janice flicked her eyes over the interior, shying away for the moment from the curious looks and taking in the grand architecture of the room, while she settled her nerves.

Immense, with a ceiling easily the home's full two stories high, its open walls and ceiling to floor windows were draped with green brocade and thin linen inlays. The wall held electrical sconces, casting a soft glow along the walls. Glancing up she took a single step back in sheer reaction.

Three massive chandeliers dominated the space; two were composed of seven gradually smaller circle layers of glass prisms and the center one held eight circles of prisms. The fixtures were affixed directly into the ceiling, but the lowest prism circles dangled more than four feet.

Well, so much for my nerves, Janice thought, feeling the flutter she had managed to calm charge to renewed life. She brought her eyes down and smiled at Mrs. Jameson who had remained quiet. The woman's patient smile indicated that she was very used to, and very pleased by, new guests' reactions to the room. "What beautiful fixtures," Janice offered quietly, with intense sincerity.

She succeeded in causing the matron to blush faintly. Then Mrs. Jameson offered a muted, "Thank you."

Tyler and his mother led the two women over to a cluster of guests already mingling with drinks in hand. As he released Melinda's arm, he asked, "Could I retrieve something for you ladies? Mother, another? Mel, may I suggest the Rothschild?"

Janice waited for Melinda to request, determined to make her own choice the same. "All right," the brunette responded, looking to Mrs. Jameson.

"I'll have the same," Janice added.

"Two it is, then. Mother?"

Millicent Jameson passed over her small empty glass. "And a refill for me," she told her son. "I'll handle the introductions," she added.

"Yes, ma'am." Tyler smartly turned away and Janice tracked his progress through the busy throng toward a table near the north side of the room, overseen by two servants in green and yellow wool uniforms.

"This way," Millicent lightly touched Janice's arm, drawing the blonde's attention back. Melinda walked a step behind as the matron of the house took it upon herself to bring the newest resident of Raleigh into the society in which she lived. She moved around young blacks, male and female, circulating with platters of hors d'oeuvres. Politely she snitched a cracker with liver pate and nibbled.

Melinda watched and accepted greetings from those who offered them after they were introduced to her blonde partner. Her smile brightened when Cassidy Zeigmacht grandly shook Janice's hand and welcomed her to Raleigh. Cassidy was in full "city councilwoman" mode, and politely took over Janice's introductions as the doorbell sounded, announcing another guest that Millicent excused herself to greet.

Eyes narrowing, Melinda caught an impertinent glance from Josh Dumont, a twenty year old with a trim mustache and thick dark hair, a lock draped down over blue eyes that sparkled with an air of mischief. A friend of Tyler's, he was a devilishly handsome young man with few prospects. The Dumonts' youngest son, he had neither interest in university or work, preferring his days filled with horses and spirits. He had been after Melinda's father for the last years of his life to reopen the Beaufort Oaks stables to a breeding program.

Now however it was obvious horses were the furthest thing from his mind.

He studied Janice with intensity, obviously taken by her looks in the fine dress and carefully pinned hair. Then, it wasn't anything that Melinda could put her finger on, but when Cassidy introduced Janice as "Doctor Covington," she saw his lip curl slightly and he resumed conversation with others nearby as soon as they passed.

Others, she was relieved, accepted the academic aspect of her partner with more aplomb. While few were educated highly enough to converse with Janice on her area of expertise, these, mostly other professors and their wives, were accepting of her. She was doubly grateful for Cassidy's presence during introductions as they made their way around to the businessmen of the community, among whom Mr. Justin Jameson chatted amiably.

"Imports are going to drive the honest man out of business," he said as the trio of women appeared at the outside of the clutch.

"Prices going down, Justin, are good for the consumer," Cassidy interjected. Absently she drew a finger sandwich from a passing tray.

The crowd fell silent instantly. "Ah, Cassidy. Who have you here?" He spotted Melinda immediately. "Gracious, Melinda, you're back in town." He clasped the young woman's hands. "Is your mother about?"

"Not at the present, sir," Melinda stepped back, bringing Jameson's attention to her smaller partner. "May I introduce Doctor Janice Covington?"

"Doctor, eh? Well, well. Come here, girl. What's about you?" Justin chuckled and then smiled as Janice stepped forward. "Nice look about you. So, what brings you to Raleigh?"

Janice seemed to take his measure in the moment before he took her hand. "I thought I would see this part of the country for a while, sir."

"A traveler then? Where's your family from?"

"Philadelphia." She looked over briefly at Melinda, who nodded encouragement. "Miss Pappas and I met during her business in Europe."

"Business? Melinda?"

"Yes, sir." The brunette confirmed his look toward her with a nod.

"By profession I am an archaeologist. Miss Pappas ventured out to one of my excavations."

"Oh dear. What about the war?" Shocked looks from the men's wives fell on Melinda, who ducked her head charmingly. Janice recaptured their attention.

"We managed to return before it caught up to us," she assured the group. Changing the subject somewhat and deflecting the several disapproving looks cast toward Melinda, Janice squared her gaze on Justin Jameson. "I don't believe you'll have much competition from imports soon, sir. Europe is quite caught up."

"What do you know about the war?" The question was asked in a tone that strongly suggested that it wasn't a proper topic for a lady.

Janice caught the intonation and merely shrugged in reply. "Only as much as you, I expect." Sage nods among the men and the women's pursed lips told Melinda that Janice had answered mildly enough.

Cassidy caught Melinda's eye and the brunette was almost embarrassed by the smile the older woman flashed. She was quite a fan of shaking up the establishment. Melinda did not agree, but her associations with Janice were gradually changing her mind about a lot of things.

A small dark woman in a prim white apron and hunter green short-skirted dress stepped into a doorway to the south. A tall man appeared next to her, his uniformed right arm draped with several pristine white linens. "Dinner is served," he announced in a deep, carrying voice. Janice recognized him as the man who had escorted Melinda inside the house when they first arrived.

In the press of people as the guests flowed toward the doorway, Janice lost track of Melinda. Each guest dipped their hands in the bowl the young woman carried and dried their fingers on the towels. Janice scanned the group, noticing Tyler near the front and the Colliers behind her. She did a quick count in the confusion. Approximately fifty people were about to partake at the "small" dinner party.

If this is small, I can't imagine large, she thought, already forgetting half the names of those to whom she had been introduced. She wondered where everyone would fit.

She paused in the doorway drying her hands on the towel. The dining room could seat probably one hundred cozily. At present however round tables were scattered across the open space giving each diner considerable room at tables set for six guests each. She guessed that a larger dinner party would simply take place in both the dining room and the ballroom. Incredible.

Two chandeliers, which matched the three in the ballroom in style, if not size, basked the room in a softer glow. Where the ballroom had been fully illuminated, the dining room's lighting was couched for gentlest effect. Despite its sheer size there was an intimate feeling about the room. Dark paneling rose four feet up the walls, and then a light diffusing antique white paint colored the walls up to where carved porticos ringed the juncture of wall and ceiling all along the edges of the room. The chairs were highly polished Carolina oak, the lighter brown beautifully stark against the hunter green tablecloths.

Janice spotted her partner when she saw Tyler move alongside Melinda. The son of the hosts guided the brunette to a table at the far end. Janice then noticed the nameplates elegantly handwritten and propped at the various table settings. A young man with jet-black hair and a carefully trimmed mustache approached her. "Miss Covington, may I help you find your seat?"

"I'm sorry, so many names," she began, shaking her head.

"Ah, no matter, certainly we'll know each other by the end of the evening. Josh Dumont," he supplied, offering his elbow.

The young man led her toward a table almost against the exterior wall where she found her place. With a tug, he settled her in the chair and seated himself in one opposite her. She decided not to notice his quick switch of plates, from one in his hand and the one actually at his seat. She kept her gaze focused past him watching Melinda settling in at the head table, conversing quietly with Mrs. Jameson on her left.

"May I provide you with anything?" he asked her.

"Nothing, thank you," she answered distracted, as he stood and hurried off as a businessman in a gray single-breasted suit and his wife in a blue flower print dress, arrived at the table. "Good evening," she offered.

"Jean and Margaret Faille," he said in a voice lightly accented with French.

"Janice Covington," she responded. 

"Welcome to Raleigh." He reached across the table, and she offered up her hand carefully. He pressed his lips to the back of her knuckles. "I am astonished to see such a beautiful woman without escort." He accepted his wife's hand on his arm.

"I have a friend here," she explained. "The Pappas family has graciously extended their hospitality."

"Will you be in town long?"

"I have accepted a teaching position at the university for the spring term," Janice answered simply. Margaret's eyes flicked over her in an assessing way.

"You are an academic?" Margaret settled her napkin in her lap as she asked.

"Yes. History." Janice picked up her water glass and sipped.

"We have only just ourselves arrived in Raleigh." Jean acknowledged. "I work with Monsieur Dumont," he nodded to a gentleman at the next table where Janice recognized Rachel Dumont beside him. "He invited us this evening."

"I was given to believe that this was a small dinner party," the blonde admitted. "Certainly doesn't seem like there is anyone left in town."

Jean chuckled. "I too was overwhelmed at first."

Josh Dumont returned at that moment, lowering himself into the seat he had chosen with a flourish. "Hello, Jean. Mrs. Faille."

"Monsieur Josh. I did not know you would be here."

He shrugged. "Tyler invited me to go hunting in the morning. Suggested I take in the dinner to start." He cocked a half smile at each of the older couple and then had to stand even as his gaze fell once more on Janice. Two new arrivals had, by politeness, forced both Jean and Josh to their feet.

Janice looked up to see another couple in their middle years, well matched in looks, from the gentleman's black suit to the woman's scoop-necked black dress, overlaid with a single strand of pearls.

"Constance and Bertram Season," the gentleman of the couple introduced them.

The others offered their names as well. Just as the Seasons were seated, Janice cast a last glance up at the head table, hoping to catch Melinda's eye with a smile. Though simply dressed in a blue cinchwaist dress, the brunette was easily the visual focal point at the head table seated between Millicent Jameson and Tyler. On Millicent's left, Justin stood. "A toast," he offered.

"A toast," echoed in the room as other men stood.

"To family and friends."

"Friends!" echoed throughout the dining room.

At her table, Janice offered, "To new friends," which generated warm responding smiles. Then glasses clinked and everyone settled again as the servants circulated. The first of the meal's four courses was set before each person. Janice glanced down. Leek soup, she thought, then tasted it and smiled.

It was early in the main course, Janice having just tasted her sautéed veal, when there was an interruption at the main table. A servant bent close to Mrs. Jameson, next to Melinda. Melinda's eyes widened as her head came up and abruptly she caught Janice's eyes across the room. The brunette excused herself with a word to Millicent and the servant escorted her from the dining hall. Janice's eyes went wide around her forkful of veal and she lowered it slowly back to her plate.

"Is the food all right, dear?" Mrs. Faille asked gently.

"Oh yes. I'm sorry. Would you excuse me, please?" She dusted her hands on her napkin and tossed it on the table as she stood.

"I'll escort you," Josh offered.

"Thank you." Janice was more concerned by the expression she had seen crossing Melinda's face than she was with the propriety of being escorted by the single young man, when it would have been more appropriate to have one of the married gentlemen take her from the room.

She put it from her mind though as she left the room on Josh's arm and they scanned quickly down the main hallway. A light from behind a mostly closed door caught her attention. "Over there."

She pushed open the door and found Melinda standing with her back to them and a uniformed policeman reaching for her shoulder.

"What happened?"

Melinda turned; instantly Janice saw something was terribly wrong. The sky blue of the brunette's eyes held turmoil, darkened with unspoken worry. "Janice?"

The blonde broke from Josh's side and grasped Mel's hand, feeling the cool chill of the skin. The brunette was badly scared. She squeezed the long fingers gently and posed her question directly to the officer. "I'm a houseguest of Miss Pappas. Could you tell me what happened?"

"We found a vehicle registered in Miss Pappas's name at the train station. The glass had been broken and there was evidence of a struggle in the front seat. When they called it in to the station house, we called at the house." He looked to Melinda. "Your maid told us you had left a note saying that you should be here."

"You thought that Melinda had been hurt?"

"The car was hers. Certainly it was broken into."

Melinda shuddered. "But it wasn't me." She met Janice's eyes and the blonde felt Melinda's tightening grip; reassuringly she squeezed back, but Melinda's voice was still weak. "It had to be Mother."

"What's this?" Josh stepped forward. "Something happen to your mother, Melinda?"

The officer answered him. "We're not certain. Was your mother planning to go out of town, Miss Pappas?"

"She left the house Wednesday morning, but didn't tell me her destination," Melinda admitted.

Janice scanned the badge of the officer on his lapel. "Officer Donner, could you take Miss Pappas and myself to examine the car?"

"Certainly it isn't a place for a lady, miss."

She turned to the son of their hostess. "Where's a phone?"

Melinda grasped Janice's arm. "Mel, I'm just going to call Vida."

Familiar with the study layout, Josh helpfully pulled the telephone from a drawer in the study's room-dominating oak desk. Everyone waited with carefully held breath as Janice dialed the house then gave a relieved grin when Vida answered the phone. "Vida, goodness. It's all right. Yes. We're both safe. No. We're going there now."

Melinda's voice was distant, carefully controlled. "Tell her to lock the house."

Janice nodded. "Yes, Vida. Please. We'll be there as soon as possible."

Josh looked from the brunette to the blonde, to the officer. "Will you be leaving?"

Janice nodded. "Please convey our apologies to the Jamesons." She grasped Josh's hand. "Please don't give any details except that she was called home. Until we know more it seems premature to alarm anyone unnecessarily."

Janice watched Melinda's carefully constructed mien begin to crack as the brunette drew in a shaky breath. Damn. "Let's go." Before she can't hold in the worry anymore. Knowing Melinda needed her Janice kept tight control on her own reaction. Where the hell was Melinda's mother and what had happened at the train station?

"Of course," Josh responded, compelled by the strength in her voice. "Please let us know if we should do anything."

The two women and the officer met Tyler in the hallway. "Melinda?"

"We're sorry, Tyler," Janice interjected. "But something has come up at the house." She grasped her coat and then Melinda's out of the closet, settling both arms quickly into the sleeves before assisting the brunette with hers. The officer, a little at loose ends, held both women's hats. Janice watched Melinda mechanically pin hers on but forwent her own, simply grabbing the brim and turning to the door.

The two young men watched, wrapped up in silent thoughts, as the officer exited first, followed by Melinda, who leaned against the hand Janice settled low on her back. Tyler nodded to Josh and the two men returned to the dining room, in silent accord, to make their excuses and depart as well.

Chapter 18

Melinda's mind raced. Janice guided her through the lighter rain to the passenger side of her car. Through the mist, the brunette studied the officer walking to his patrol car.

"I'll lead you," he called back.

"Right behind you," Janice answered, settling behind the vehicle's driving wheel. She reached across Mel, who was bracing against the dashboard straining to look through the falling rain. She checked that the brunette's door was snugly shut. "Ready?" she asked, touching Mel's cheek after snapping up the keys from Mel's purse on her lap.

The brunette nodded tightly, stiffening her chin, but her blue eyes shined with moisture. "Let's go."

Janice turned the key and listened as the engine sputtered to life and then settled to an idle. She set the wipers in motion and turned on the headlamps before swinging the car out onto the road. Flooring the gas pedal she caught up quickly to the officer's black sedan.

Only vaguely remembering the route to the train depot, not having needed to make the trip since arriving almost three weeks earlier, Janice judiciously kept the other car in sight. Melinda's car was unfamiliar in her grip, but she managed to correct twice when the wheels slipped on the slick roads.

Melinda remained silent for the entire ride, intently leaning forward and bracing her right hand on the dashboard. Her blue eyes darted back and forth trying to penetrate the mist and rain to see through the evening darkness.

There were two other automobiles in the depot parking lot when Janice pulled the car to a stop. Melinda was out the door almost before the engine completely fell silent. Tucking the keys into her sleeve, Janice followed her quickly.

"We found the car over here," Officer Donner said. "After we saw the signs of struggle we thought you," he cast a glance at Melinda. "We thought you were hurt. The station called your home. Your woman--" Here he checked his pad. "Vida... she said that Mrs. Pappas had gone out of town and that you were at the Jamesons."

"Did you find anything in the car?" Janice asked as they rounded the building corner. She looked up and immediately saw the damaged vehicle. Its driver window was smashed; the glass shards glittering with rain and moonlight were scattered over the ground.

"Our men found nothing. A bit of... blood," he looked to Melinda apologetically. "We aren't sure who it belongs to."

Janice scanned the ground around the car. When Melinda started forward, she crouched and held up a stalling hand. "No." Intently, she searched the dirt and pebbles. The rain and dark were making it difficult to... Yes. "I need a light," she uttered with sharp command.

Taking a long step backward she grabbed a hand lamp from another officer.

"What did you find?" Donner asked.

"There are prints in the dirt," she explained. "The rain doesn't make it very clear, but..." She flared her light toward him for a moment. "Bring me the officers who examined the car."

He turned around and jogged to the other patrol cars and the two milling officers.

Melinda moved, watching where she planted her feet as she came alongside the blonde. "Janice?"

"I'm stalling." The archaeologist admitted, with that intuitive glint in her eye, and shook her head. "There are prints, but it's useless, Mel. Your mother was dragged out of her car." She illuminated a path gouged in the mud. "She didn't go willingly. Or consciously." Shining the light inside the broken window, she went on quietly, "The glove box is open. Were the car's registration papers in there?"

Melinda pushed both hands through her hair. "So why haven't we had a ransom note, or something?"

"Too recent. Doesn't look like this happened any earlier than maybe noon." She looked up at the station house. "If we could find out which train your mother came in on, we'd have a pretty good idea how long they've had her." She leveled her eyes on Melinda and asked seriously, "Would she hold up under any types of interrogation?"

Mel pursed her lips and shook her head.

To boost her partner's flagging spirits, Janice quipped, "Don't worry. She probably talked them to death."

Melinda sniffled but quirked a wan smile. "All right. So where did they take her?"

"Depends on if they thought she knew what they wanted to know, or if they intend to use her to get to you." Janice considered what she had just said. "They probably headed for the house in either case."

"Oh, God," Melinda suddenly remembered. "Vida's there too."

With sharp determination coloring her words, Janice flashed the light up into her face and then Mel's. "We're going to get them both back, Mel."

The Raleigh officers jogged up. Janice scanned their shoes and made a quick show of singling out a set of depressions and the narrow trench. "She was dragged to another vehicle and driven somewhere."

"We should get you back to the house for a ransom call," Donner suggested to Melinda. "I'll have one of my men go with you."

Janice needed to separate from the brunette. Only a multiple direction approach could possibly hope to get them out of this. "Mel, I'll drive your car back. You and the officers can go on ahead. I want to stop in and talk with the stationmaster first." She circled quickly around the building, as if to go inside, but instead raced to Melinda's car and drove off, the sound covered by the grinding engine of an arriving train.

By the time, Mel and Officer Donner reached the parking lot; Janice and the car were out of sight.

Having just returned from her impromptu vacation granted by Miss Melinda, Vida remembered thinking that she should have called ahead. She had been young once herself and would not wish to surprise the misses, who had no doubt grown comfortable in the quiet of the big house.

But the house had been empty when she arrived. Not even the front porch bulb had been left on. Once inside she made her way to the kitchen, put a serving of leftover soup on the stove over a low flame before the phone ring had drawn her back to the main hall.

It had been an officer from the town police. A car with Pappas registration had been found at the train station. Did she know where Miss Pappas was? She told him that Miss Pappas, and her houseguest Miss Covington had planned to attend a dinner party at Juniper Hall with the Jamesons.

Returning to her soup, she was just sitting down with a bowl of it, when the telephone rang again. Miss Janice asked if everything was all right and told her that they were going to the train station first, but would be home as quickly as possible.

She had gone, as instructed, to secure the front door.

When she returned to the kitchen, a man was just stepping inside. His weapon came up instantly to train on a point in the middle of her chest.

"You are the only one in the house?" he demanded, his voice colored with a mild accent, very similar to the light accent of Mrs. Zeigmacht, who had occasionally dropped in on Melinda for tea. Miss Melinda probably could be more specific, but Vida was alarmed only that the man did not appear to be American.

She obeyed the waving gun and moved away from the stove to the kitchen table, gingerly sitting down as she tried to both keep the gun in sight and avoid looking at it. The weapon made her very upset, she acknowledged, wondering what he intended.

"Are you alone?" He repeated, wagging the barrel from side to side for emphasis.

Vida was not accustomed to lying and not given to bravado, she shook her head. "I am alone."

The man's partner, or perhaps only one of them, entered the kitchen, in time to hear her admission.

"You had better speak the truth," he warned her. His accent was very mild compared to the younger man. His blonde hair was considerably thicker, and his blue eyes narrowed on her face. He turned to his partner. "Keep her under wraps. I'm going to check the rest of the house."

A moment later the soup she had left on boiled over, hissing and spitting. The young fellow with the gun tried to grab for the pot, burning his hand on the short metal handle. "Fix it!" he ordered, roaring a bit from the pain.

Vida told him there was ice in the box for his hand as she carefully cleaned up the stovetop. 

She was rinsing the sponge at the sink when the leader returned and confirmed her earlier statement. "Far as we can tell there isn't anybody around except her." He followed the direction of his own pointing finger and studied her for a long silent minute while her stomach flip-flopped. "When will they return?" he asked.

Her eyes widened in alarm. She sincerely wished that Janice had not told her they were on their way. To stall, she asked, "What do you want with them?"

He checked the chambers of his gun methodically, snapping the cylinder and spinning it. She jumped unconsciously at the implied threat. "They have information that would damage the people I work for. I'm here to see they don't give it to anyone else."

"How..." Her voice was weak. She swallowed and started again. "How do you plan to do that?"

"Don't you worry about that. Just cooperate and you'll be fine."

Vida kept her face impassive. She had not heard either Miss Melinda or Miss Janice talk about any information. She heard, then, as did her captors, a burst of sudden noise from the front of the house.

She was roughly grabbed by the shoulders and shoved ahead of the two men as they moved quickly to investigate the situation.

A female voice protested, "I don't know about anything!"

The leader quickly raised his hand, ordering the other to hold back with Vida. He rounded the corner into the sitting room alone.

"She says she doesn't know." Another male voice, with the same foreign accent almost completely obscuring his words, spoke up.

"Not this Pappas, you idiot."

"She was the one on the train."

Vida wished the man with his hands wrapped around her upper arms would be curious enough about the exchange between his companions to enter the room himself. She wanted to know what was going on. The woman they held had to be Mrs. Pappas. She had known Brenda went to visit her sister in Boston, since she left Vida a note to that effect. But the original note had indicated "a couple of weeks."

She wondered what had caused Mrs. Pappas to shorten the trip. Additionally, Vida wanted to see if their captors had caused her any injuries.

There was suddenly no more time to think about it. Automobile lights outside passed through the front curtains and the sound of an engine cutting out caught everyone's attention.

Her captor prodded her forward.

The leader ordered him back. "Tie her to the kitchen chair and then get back here." He pulled aside the curtain as she was dragged away. One glance was all she managed to exchange with Brenda Pappas. But it was enough to send her heart racing again.

The matron had been liberally spattered with mud and had bruises and cuts on her face and hands. The long sleeve of Mrs. Pappas's brown flounced traveling dress had been half torn down her arm.

She found herself tied with her own apron to the chair. Before she could protest he was gone, checking his ammunition as he disappeared.

A flicker just out of her line of sight caught her attention. As she turned her head to take in the whole area, the rear door opened slowly.

A handheld lamp led in first, the darkness beyond obscuring the bearer as the projected beam blinded Vida.

She fought only briefly against the urge to scream, her mouth opened. Squeezing her eyes shut she sucked in her breath.

Chapter 19

From her position next to the wind-blown trees shaped over the rear porch, Janice scanned the house up to the second floor, judging distance and route, considering what she was about to do. After speeding away from the train station, Janice had decided that a direct approach on Beaufort Oaks would be unwise, probably hurting far too many people in the process. So she tucked the car off the lane leading up to the house, hiding it among the oaks and bushes lining the rock-paved drive.

She had lost her shoes in a rain-formed mud hole around the side of the house, where it appeared a tree had recently been cut out by the gardening staff. Now, barefoot, chilled and wet, she had only a few minutes before Melinda would be arriving with the Raleigh officers.

Before then she intended to have as much knowledge as possible about the situation inside the house. She had seen a small lamp in the sitting room shining in the front window, and the kitchen light was also on. She heard movement near the door when she first crept onto the porch and pressed her ear to the frame, careful to keep her body out of the line of sight.

Grasping the wood of the trellis, she planted her feet and started up, hand over hand and moving her feet carefully from juncture to juncture. She blinked against the rainwater that poured off the house's eaves and down into the collar of her raincoat.

The weight of the wet fabric dragged on her shoulders. God, I am really out of shape, she thought as the activity already produced a burning sensation in her muscles. Either that or Vida's cooking is really packing on the pounds. Finally the railing which circled the second floor balcony was within a short reach. She would have to throw her body toward it a little, and trust her reflexes, but she had no other choice.

Taking a deep breath, she threw her upper body to the left and reached out for the posts holding up the railing. Her left fist closed around one, but her right missed. Panting lightly she calmed herself while dangling precariously, feet on the trellis and one hand on the balcony. With effort she rotated her body enough to bring her right hand to the railing.

"Miss Covington, what are you doing?"

The calm voice in the silence startled her, sounding far too loud. Jerking, she almost lost her grip. Swinging, since she did lose her footing, Janice looked down the length of her body to see her dinner company from the Jamesons', Josh Dumont, dismounting from a dark horse, and staring up at her.

The horse's breath puffed from its nostrils in little clouds of mist. Janice however tore her eyes from the obviously winded horse and twisted so she could see Josh's smiling, curious face. "Dumont? What--are you doing here?" She hissed loudly enough for her voice to carry. "Get out of sight!"

"Have you taken leave of your senses?"

"No, I haven't." Bracing her arms she turned her attention away from him for a moment, her left arm protesting the lengthy responsibility of suspending her weight. Janice pulled her body over the railing and landed with a muted thud on the floor of the balcony. Taking a cleansing breath, she leaned back over the railing. "Josh, there are some very dangerous people inside."

"All the more reason Tyler and I rode over to help," he countered.

"Tyler is here?" She rubbed her hand over her face feeling suddenly an age older than the young man who seemed to see this as nothing more than a hunting lark. "Where is he? And keep your voice down," she hissed in warning.

"Out front. I'm sure he's met up with Melinda and Officer Donner by now."

Janice started calculating, emboldened by the implied number of people suddenly on the grounds, then shook her head. Unless she found out exactly what was the situation inside there was little point in trying to plan an approach, no matter how many people they had outside. "Stay put." She injected as much command as she could into the hissed whisper. "I'm going to check inside." She had a thought though. "Here's my light." She dropped her handlamp into the wet grass. "Do you have an iron?"

"A what?"

"A gun, sidearm. Something that fires bullets?" She knew she was being sarcastic, but damn it the situation didn't need more unpredictable elements added to the mix.

His smile in response sent a shiver of dread up her spine. Reaching back into his mount's saddlebag he withdrew a Colt .45. The moonlight on the well-polished barrel illuminated the revolver's distinctive lines.

"Is it loaded?" He nodded. "Toss it up." He glanced toward the doorway. "No!" she barked, then gentled her voice. "There are probably hostages. Josh, I'm trying not to get anyone hurt here. Just toss it up."

He pulled back on his arm and released the weapon in an easy arc toward her. Snapping it out of the air, feeling its cool metal solid form fit into her palm, Janice nodded down to him. "Now, stay by the door. But out of sight."

Armed now, Janice ducked through the doorway off the balcony, emerging into the dark second floor hallway. Carefully she shut the door and focused on sounds she heard of those also in the house.

There were voices downstairs. Separating the different speakers, she counted the number of unique voices. There were ... three voices in the kitchen. She heard a rough German accent in a deep young male voice. Then a nervous feminine voice with the careful lilt that could only be Vida Brown, the Pappas housekeeper. A third voice had little accent, was gruff, deeper and threatening. She edged from listening over the opening to the back stairs until she stood over the front stairs, now listening to the exchanges in the front sitting room.

"Where are the plans?" A male voice demanded.

A low, feminine voice answered sharply, "I don't know anything about that." Surprised by the realization that this was Brenda, the older Pappas woman's voice was so reminiscent of Melinda's that for a split second Janice thought Melinda was inside the house. The blonde winced when she heard the slap of a hand contacting flesh. But Brenda did not react aloud.

Hefting the gun, the archaeologist took a single step forward, onto the steps going down, then recalled her sense and stepped back up. The voices from the kitchen shifted, and Janice crouched down, trying to get a look into the entry hall as the voices converged on those in the sitting room.

With all the sounds now at the front of the house, Janice moved cat-like down the backstairs and entered the kitchen, crossing to the back door and hurriedly unlatching it, letting herself out. Careful to make it close soundlessly behind her, she nearly vaulted out of her skin when a pair of hands fell to her shoulders and spun her around. With supreme effort she smothered her startled oath.

Pressing his face close to hers as he pulled her toward the bushes, Josh asked, "How many?"

"Four. All in the front room."

"All right," he said. "You go around and tell Melinda and Tyler." He tried to reclaim his gun from her hands.

She wouldn't relinquish it. "No. I have a better chance."

"But you're a woman," he countered. Though the words were stated simply, Janice felt an implied insult in them and recoiled.

She put on her most winsome smile and tucked her hands, with the gun, demurely behind her back. "Exactly." She transformed again, putting the steely glint she had offered to Smythe's men it seemed a lifetime ago in Macedonia. It made Josh take a step back. "Tell Mel to act like she's just come in from a date. The less we sound like we have a mini-army out here, the less likely they will be to shoot first."

As they stood up together, Janice gripped Josh's hand suddenly forcing him to understand her. She would not put anyone in danger here; he was not to do anything stupid. "They have both Melinda's mother and Vida, the house maid, as hostages. It's the safest way."

A smile born of the faint beginnings of admiration touched his lips then Josh nodded. "Here," he handed over the lamp and ran off into the darkness, to find Melinda and Tyler.

Janice trained her weapon and the small hand lamp on the door. She watched the light in the window and waited for a good moment to make her move. Tuning her ears to the sounds of the night, she filtered out the distracting pounding of her heart, and tried to catch an indication that Melinda and Tyler were going in the front door.

Tyler Jameson trotted down the tree-lined drive and came alongside Melinda in the passenger seat of Donner's patrol car. He dismounted, holding his stallion's reins as she rolled down the window quickly.

"Tyler, what are you doing here?"

"I came to see how you were. How'd it go at the train station?"

"We found the car. Not much else," she temporized, worried that his presence would cause problems if there was anyone in the house.

He leaned into the window slightly. "Where's your friend, Dr. Covington?"

"Master Jameson, you should head home," Donner injected.

"I'd rather stay and help Miss Pappas if possible," Tyler responded easily.

Melinda studied the house further up the road. "Can you tell if there is anyone inside?"

"Josh went around back to see. I saw your lights and came here first."

She looked over to the officer. "Well, we'd better find out what he discovered."

Donner proceeded to the edge of the drive but his headlamps illuminated the front walk before he turned them off. Cutting the engine, he got out as Melinda did the same and Tyler quickly led his horse up from behind. "I don't like involving more people in this, Miss Melinda." Then he caught a motion around the west side of the house; a figure burst through the bushes and stumbled onto the rock surface of the drive.

Donner pulled his gun from his holster, and aimed it, all in the same space of a moment it took for him to identify Josh Dumont and for the young man to drop to his knees, arms raised in the air.

"Don't shoot!" Dumont hissed in the silence. "It'll draw attention."

"So there are people inside?" Jameson stepped forward. Donner jerked his head and allowed Tyler Jameson to grab his friend's wrist and yank him to his feet.

"Four. Two women hostages." Dumont looked to Melinda. "Your mother and the maid."

Donner ordered them to fall back again into the darkness. "Now you three stay here. I'm going to call for backup." He reached into his patrol car and lifted up the radio speaker.

"That'll take too long. They have to know someone is already out here." Dumont objected. "Janice has already been inside. She thinks there's a way to distract them, and get the drop on them."

Donner looked at him in surprise. "Miss Covington is here?"

Dumont ignored him for the moment and spoke to Melinda. "She thinks you can pretend to come in from a date, and the less threatening appearance will prevent them from shooting."

Josh Dumont and Tyler Jameson had known Melinda Pappas for many years and she had not seemed very different from a dozen other young society-reared women, given to dancing at parties and mingling with the other women talking of inconsequential things. But the look that crossed Melinda's smooth features now reminded them that she had also spent a lot of time off to the side, alone, observing the groups with hawk-like acuity. Her azure eyes turned icy, going more gray than blue and she narrowed her gaze first on Dumont then the house.

"All right. Here's what we're going to do."

"Miss Pappas, I can't support this."

"Fine. Then don't. Call for backup, but I have to go in." She leveled her gaze on Tyler Jameson now. "Escort me up there."

"You seem rather certain. Is there something you know about this, Miss Pappas?"

Melinda looked back at the officer. "Those are Nazis that have my mother, Officer Donner."

"Nazis? Damn.... darn... oh Hell's bells Miss Pappas..." Donner backed away from his car and wielded his weapon again. She grabbed it firmly in her hand, reaching to the side so the barrel pointed to the ground.

"Just call for more officers," she interrupted tolerantly.

"Yes, ma'am." He backed up to his car and watched as the young couple walked casually to the front steps.

Time for an act, she thought, turning to the slender affable man beside her as she fished through her purse for her keys. "Thank you for driving me home," she said, a little loudly. Her ears caught a bit of rapid-fire conversation behind the door.

"My pleasure, Miss Melinda," Tyler took a deep breath and fell easily into his role. "Can I help you?"

"No, I'll be fine." She fit the key into the lock and started to turn the knob.

"If you're certain..." He stepped toward the hinge side of the door.

"Yes." The door pushed open. Reaching around the corner, Melinda reached for the front entry light switch. Another hand reached it first and a massive fist closed around her wrist, dragging her forward.

"Well, well." Melinda cast her eyes to her right and found Tyler in the firm grips of another man and then returned her eyes to the older blue-eyed blonde with his fingers bruising her wrist that he held above her head.

"Who are you?" she asked, putting a tremble into her voice.

"I'm hurt you don't remember me." He turned his head to the side and she noticed the long scabbed over gash from the corner of his right eye down across the meat of his cheek and a gouge in his cheek. Cutting right to the point, he settled the gun in the soft skin of her throat. "Now, why don't you tell me where the papers are, hmmm?" She swallowed, feeling the barrel slide along the outside of her larynx. "If you don't I'll kill everything in this house and find it myself. Then how will you tell your government about the little secret?" He poked her in the throat making her reflexively gag. "I could just blow your throat out. That'll make sure you never talk."

"I told you on the train that we lost everything in the plane crash," Melinda reasoned. "I don't have anything else."

"Where's the coat?" Melinda's face screwed up in confusion. "That ratty old bomber jacket your blonde friend seemed so fond of. Where is it? I know it made it into the country."

"The coat? We had the papers in the suitcase."

"Blane is a smart one. We tortured it out of him when we told him we had shot down your plane. He wanted nothing more than to drown in drink. So we let him. The papers in the suitcase were not the important ones."

Janice, Melinda thought. Janice wore that coat everywhere. Had she known the leather contained more than the halves of the chakram? Was this man speaking the truth?

The brunette didn't have another moment to think. A sharp scream interrupted the tableau.

She kicked free as her captor spun in alarm. Through the narrow line of sight afforded by his moving body, Melinda saw a blur of blonde and green dive through the kitchen. And suddenly the scream stopped.

The two men holding them, and a third which had been in the sitting room, all pulled their guns and dragged Tyler and herself toward the kitchen, using the two women as shields.

Tyler, bless him, pulled free, by tripping himself on the phone's cord as they passed the small table where it sat. As the man fell, and his captor tripped over him, Melinda ducked her head and threw an elbow backward into a tense stomach. The gun barrel flashed into her peripheral vision and she smashed her fist down across his wrist, causing the weapon to drop to the floor and skitter across until it hit a wall and discharged.

Janice swung around the open doorway from the kitchen at the sound and led with her weapon into the confines of the hallway. She fired once, the bullet rasping past Melinda's shoulder and embedding with a gurgle in the throat of the man falling over Tyler Jameson's prone body. Melinda dropped to the side and tried to keep the gun on the floor in her sights.

"In the sitting room!" she yelled to Janice as she finally closed her hand over the gun handle and pointed it at the looming figure of her captor. The downed man next to her groaned as Tyler rolled him over and restrained him. A flash of motion and she fired on reflex. Heavily the dead man fell forward, bleeding from a chest wound as he collapsed, still struggling for the gun he'd managed to grab in his fist before she fired. The strength of his fight finally ebbed and Melinda tugged the revolver and herself away from the limp body.

Dazedly she struggled to her feet and leaned hard against the wall. She hadn't lost her own consciousness this time. With that startling realization, she dropped the gun and looked down at the man who had attacked her at the university, and whom now, she had killed.

Tyler grabbed up the gun and charged after Janice, who had disappeared into the sitting room. Melinda edged there now, having neither heard shots nor signs that either Janice or the Nazi holding her mother had come to physical blows.

With Tyler's arrival, the man turned his gun from its sights on Janice to line up with Jameson's head. He had his left arm wrapped around Melinda's mother in a chokehold that the older woman could not find the strength to challenge. Melinda saw red as her mother's face paled and started to turn blue.

Janice never once lowered her weapon. From this angle, Melinda couldn't tell what part of his mostly shielded anatomy Janice had the gun sights on.

"Your partners are dead," Janice warned him, the youngest of the three men who had taken over the house. "Drop the gun or I'll make you as dead as they are."

Brenda Pappas went limp from lack of oxygen and probably no little fear. Janice caught the instant the body sagged and the young man lost control of her weight. As he released the tension in his arms for the briefest of moments and Brenda sagged faster, Janice fired.

The bullet pierced his chest where only a split second before, Brenda's head had rested. His gun canted upward and the reflex in his hands discharged his gun into the ceiling. The plaster scattered down on top of him. He fell backward, buried under a small section of collapsed ceiling, staring up into the second floor unseeing.

"Lord's mercy!" Vida's voice erupted from behind Melinda and the brunette turned to catch the dark woman as she fell faint.

Across the room, Janice dropped her gun and caught Brenda before the woman's body could, in her faint, also hit the floor.

Tyler collected his wits and went to check on the pinned man. Checking for a pulse he found none, and rolled back on his heels. "He's dead." He looked toward Melinda who cradled Vida in her arms, and then to Janice, who held Brenda Pappas in hers. "That was some amazing shooting. Do you two do this often?"

Despite her stomach churning badly enough to almost bring up her dinner, Janice started to chuckle then bubbled into an honest laugh as she met Melinda's eyes. "It's over."

"It's only over for now. Unless we get the paper they wanted to the government."

"What paper?"

"When was the last time you checked the pockets of your leather jacket?"

The blonde shrugged. "Why?"

"Seems that Blane had more plans. And he put them in it."

"Damn." She looked up, embarrassed by her own outburst, then realized with relief that Tyler had stepped out of the room. "When will people ever deal straight with us?"

Melinda did not have an answer for that, and was trying to formulate a response when Officer Donner and Tyler and Josh entered the sitting room. Behind Donner two other Raleigh officers followed. All the men surveyed the damage, shock passing over their rugged faces. "Miss Pappas, what happened here?"

Since the gun was far from her hands because of her sudden drop to catch Vida, Melinda decided to keep the details simple. "The ceiling collapsed," she answered. "I had been planning to have it fixed." The brunette could see Janice trying to smother a laugh against her mother's shoulder. And finally Melinda smiled as she saw her mother start to stir. "If you'll collect those men, officer, I should move my mother and maid to someplace more comfortable."

Tyler helped Donner clear the debris from atop the man in the sitting room, while the other two officers and Josh removed the bodies from the hall. Janice was watching the balancing act of Tyler and Donner when she felt the body in her arms wake up.

Her voice soft, if not exactly lighthearted, Janice asked, "Mrs. Pappas, are you all right?"

Blue eyes of a shade that almost exactly matched Melinda's blinked several times so that Janice's heart squeezed, remembering a time she had held an injured Mel in her arms. Finally Brenda tested her voice. "Is it over?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's over." Janice rubbed lightly on Brenda's back as she helped the woman sit up carefully. "Does anything hurt? I tried to make sure you weren't, but... it all happened rather fast."

Brenda examined her arms and legs and mentally catalogued her aches and pains. "No. I... I think I'm all right. Sore, but..."


Blue eyes met across the room where Melinda was helping a quiet, but awake Vida also sit up. "Melinda."

"I'm sorry that they hurt you, Mother."

Brenda saw that she really was. And turned her head to study Janice as if she were ticking over several options in her mind. Finally the older woman offered, "You saved my life. Thank you."

Green eyes started to shine and a weak smile formed on thin lips. "You're welcome."

Chapter 20

Josh shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around the evening's events. He pushed his hands through his hair remembering the scene in the Pappas home only a few moments past.

Melinda Pappas. God, he had known her for years. Most of their lives actually.

He ashamedly remembered himself at fifteen, standing over his bicycle with a dozen other boys, each challenging the others to go jump Wreck Ravine, a rocky slope and chasm out at the county rock quarry.

Studious, bookish Melinda, who had nonetheless been a regular on the edge of their group, had told them -- well, in particular, she told Tyler Jameson, the one Josh had been pushing the hardest with the dare -- that the whole situation was just far too dangerous.

So, in his most spiteful young voice, Josh had called her a name. "Oh, go ahead and listen to the mouse, Tybaby," he squeaked. "Melinda Mouse knows everything, doesn't she?"

The other boys joined the chorus. "Tybaby! Melinda Mouse! Baby! Mouse!" And the brunette girl, who was so slim for her rapidly growing body, had just quickly tucked her book back under her elbow and walked away, shoulders stiff, flinching each time an insult landed on her ears.

Tyler Jameson had suffered for months of teasing after that because he had followed her away while Josh Dumont had just stood there and laughed until the tears rolled down his face.

Melinda had certainly grown up. Tyler had a beauty in this young woman that his mother wanted him to marry. Also very certainly she was no longer a mouse, Josh acknowledged. Vividly he recalled the revolver in her palm, wisps of smoke drifting from the barrel as she came to her feet.

It was a long way from the easy-to-tease young girl, and Josh wondered how he had missed seeing the change, though he suspected some of it had to have been caused in Europe on that spur-of-the-moment trip to meet up with the enigmatic blonde Doctor Covington.

The blonde was certainly no empty-headed society simpleton. Advanced degrees both in history and the social sciences. A levelheaded seriousness that suggested every day of her ten years experience at European archaeological sites. At least that's what her resumé said, according to Jameson.

"Mr. Dumont?"

He turned around as Officer Donner walked up. "Yes, sir?"

"Do you have any idea what went on here tonight?"

The blonde man amiably shrugged. "Not a clue. Certainly was unusual." The officer started walking, so out of courtesy, Josh found himself walking back to the house as well.

"Miss Pappas?" Donner said as they entered the sitting room.


"The men are in custody. It's rather late now, but would you and Miss Covington, and your mother, please come down to the station tomorrow and give our detectives your statements?"

"Of course," she responded.

Josh found himself watching Janice help Melinda settle the maid and Melinda's mother quietly on the couch.

Tyler appeared at the kitchen doorway with glasses of what looked and smelled to be lemonade, its pungent scent cloying the air. Josh stepped aside and let him pass.

As his brown-haired friend circulated with the refreshing drinks, Josh noticed that Covington moved with a forthrightness that seemed a little out of place on one only a few years older than himself and a woman to boot. However, each action was followed with a last moment hesitation or self-correction that seemed to be a bow to conventions she was constantly forgetting.

He remained by the doorway as Melinda changed places with Janice, the blonde murmuring something in the brunette's ear that sent the blue eyes wide with a nod.

He watched Covington shift his borrowed gun from her left to right hands as she walked directly toward him without really looking up at him. "Thanks," he said, reaching for the gun barrel.

She moved it to her other hand, not an exaggerated keep-away but a definitely subtle, I'm keeping this for the moment. She explained, "I'm going to check something upstairs."

"I'll go with you," he found himself offering as her green eyes finally swept up and caught his.

Again he watched her start to say something, trip herself to silence and then close her mouth. She paused and then finally nodded. "All right." Stepping over to the stair, she led him up. "I just came up to... get a coat," she said as she crossing onto the second floor landing.

He waited in the corridor as Janice entered one of the bedrooms. She went immediately to a fir armoire and swung one door wide. What she pulled out however was the last thing he would have considered. A beaten up, certainly dirt-laden leather jacket, partially faded in a patchwork's haphazard pattern, it looked just a little too big to be her personal property.

However, she was not putting it on. She threw the coat on the bed and started patting it down searching pockets methodically, starting at the collar and moving out over the yoke and arms.

She paused inside at a point along the inside of the back. Abruptly she manipulated the leather and even he heard the sound that sounded like paper crinkling. He heard a very unladylike curse word and wondered where she had picked it up. With force she pulled at the lining and separated it.

"I can't believe this!" Janice sounded exasperated and angry.

"What is it?" he ventured to ask.

She spun brandishing a single sheet of paper folded in her palm. "Why couldn't he do as we expected? Just once, once, something should go the way it's supposed to. That's the law of averages or something, isn't it?" She cast a quizzical glance toward him.

"What is it?" he asked again.

Studying the paper, she mused over the contents. "I can't make heads or tails of this." She grabbed the coat, fisted her hand around the paper, and pushed past him to return to the corridor.

Intrigued he followed her back down the stairs.

"Found it," Janice announced once again waving the paper as she rounded the corner back into the sitting room.

"Incredible," Melinda moaned, shaking her dark head and closing her eyes.

"What is that?" Tyler asked, reaching for the paper from where he sat on a chair, opposite a tiny loveseat where Melinda had decided to perch.

Again Janice kept the paper to herself.

"That's what I'd like to know." Josh looked to Melinda. "Would you care to explain? We did both just put our lives on the line apparently for this... whatever it is."

Janice and Melinda exchanged long communicating looks. Finally Janice nodded and Melinda spoke. Everyone remained spellbound. Vida bit her lip and Mrs. Pappas rubbed her glass across her cheeks at the details of the mess in Casablanca. Josh and Tyler shuddered at the recollection of the escape from the downed plane. Melinda told the tale, but Janice offered clarifications, as she divulged the details of their European adventure.

Melinda was illustrating a point in the air with her hands when Janice took the space on the loveseat next to the brunette. They shared a warm look as they sat together.

When they were finished, Brenda reached over and patted Melinda's knee soothingly. "I'm glad you're home." Janice felt the older woman's eyes slide to her. The ice flinting the blue was gone. But the older woman didn't say anything more. It was another thanks more silent and more solemn, as Brenda seemed to come to terms with everything, including Janice.

The house was at long last quiet. Melinda crawled into bed after talking with her mother for the duration of the time it took Janice to settle Vida in the guest room.

"She's... not what I expected," Brenda said uneasily.

"Thank you, Mother." Long fingers intertwined. "Get some rest, I'll see you in the morning."

"Those boys were quite helpful tonight?" Brenda asked.

"Yes, I sent them home with some of Vida's leftovers."

The older woman chuckled. "An old custom."

Melinda felt her cheeks warm. "Another lifetime ago," she murmured. "But appropriate, I think."

Now as she rolled onto her side, studying the open doorway into Janice's room through the bathroom, Melinda wondered where Janice planned to sleep.

The gunshot fired by the man Janice shot collapsed the ceiling which had been her bedroom's floor.


The voice came from the door and Melinda rolled her head toward it. "Is everything settled?"


"All right." Without additional words, Janice closed the door, setting the lock quietly, and Melinda raised the sheet and blanket invitingly.

"So... next stop Washington?" she asked as Janice crawled into bed, snuggling her smaller body into the curves of Melinda's.

Janice's hands drifted over Melinda's face in the moonlit darkness. "I want a single week of peace and quiet. We'll go after the holidays are over. Most of Washington is about to breakfor the holiday season anyway."


"Yes, you know. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year's." Janice's voice was low, teasing. Irresistible. So Melinda covered those quirked lips with a kiss. Deep sensuous and lingering, she nipped and sucked with abandon that pleasantly surprised her as well as Janice.

"Certainly has been an interesting couple of weeks at home," she said. "Makes me think we had it all wrong. Travel isn't the only adventure."

Janice rolled atop her longer, larger companion, settling one of her thighs between Melinda's. "No, it certainly isn't." She bent her head, briefly tasted Melinda's lips and then trailed kisses down the woman's torso.

And another more intimate adventure began.


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