Usually in her studio.
Or spending time with family. Or any number of places.
If those have to do with writing, they'll be listed




















Jeff Talbot swung open the front door and twelve thousand dollars flew out.

He stared at the C.O.D. slip while he kneaded the tense muscles in the back of his neck. He'd known the parcel was on its way, so that wasn't the problem. His wife, Sheila, had told him about her on-line purchase of the antique sketch from a dealer in Philadelphia a month earlier.

The money wasn't a problem either-Sheila had invested her inheritance wisely, and, just as wisely, had put Jeff's name on her checking account. That was a bonus, since she was momentarily in no shape to conduct business.

It was the timing. Timing was everything, he'd recently concluded, and the courier delivering the package couldn't have arrived at a worse time.

Jeff looked past the uniformed young man at nothing in particular, and listened to the distant, tinkly notes of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" drifting from one of the shops a few blocks over.

"Greedy vultures," he muttered.


Jeff shook his head, stepped aside for the courier to enter, then added, "I just wish the merchants would wait till after Thanksgiving to start playing Christmas music."

"I'm with you there. It's gone too commercial." He removed his cap and tucked it under one arm. "I wonder what it would be like if everyone boycotted giving gifts?"

"You'd probably be without a job," Jeff said, and the courier's brows lifted as if that possibility had never crossed his mind.

Jeff led the way to the library. Recent paranoia prevented his leaving the stranger alone in the foyer. He kept an eye on the guy, positioning himself so that he might quickly retrieve his old service revolver from the desk drawer if necessary. When he was an agent, he'd prided himself on his impeccable gut instinct for danger. Recently, however, his confidence had been shaken and he wondered whether he'd ever again know who was trustworthy. Or, more importantly, who was not.

He scratched out a check, ripped it from the pad, and handed it to the courier. After an uneventful exchange, he escorted the guy back to the front door and sent him out into the rain.

Greer, the Talbots' butler, normally would have answered the door-while keeping everything else in the household running smoothly-but nothing was normal anymore. The butler who hadn't even broken a sweat in the half-dozen years with the couple now appeared wilted. Jeff didn't doubt that everything would get done but it wasn't going to be easy. He and Greer were still ironing out the wrinkles in a new and stubborn bolt of cloth.

He had practically collided with Greer moments earlier on the service stairs as the butler paused at the sound of the doorbell. He was hefting a crowded luncheon tray for Sheila, so Jeff told him to take it on up to the couple's bedroom and that he would answer the door.

For the time being, they had to operate as a team. It had obviously been difficult for Greer to throw over his strict training, but he had finally acquiesced.

Greer was not given over to hysterics. The most one might notice was a rare state of flightiness when the young man was faced with a heavy workload. On days when that workload demanded the services of three employees, he busily flitted from room to room, tackling the chores alone. Not only did he complete all tasks but it even seemed as if bright spurts of surplus energy shot from his body like the sparks of an electrical storm.

But those almost imperceptible moments of excess adrenaline were altogether different from real stress. True stress burned up the energy, burned it from the inside out. Most people would not be able to detect the signs in Greer's well-trained demeanor. But Jeff recognized them. Hell, who was he kidding? He was now living them. They matched his own, those he saw reflected back at him every morning as he shaved: The nervous tremors, which resulted in razor nicks as he hastily scraped away stubble, the vertical lines between the eyebrows, the bloodshot eyes.

Jeff now rubbed his eyes, flinched as if all the sands of Alki Beach were in them, then retraced his steps to the library.

His own routine, which had been altered as well after the recent trauma that had been visited upon their serene lives, wasn't much better. He had a list of things that needed his attention-a written list, no less, something he'd never before stooped to making.
He retrieved the package and started toward the stairs by way of the breakfast nook so that he might check on the work being done there. Although Greer had been keeping a keen eye on the decorator, it had become a habit of Jeff's to watch over everything more closely.

A few weeks earlier, Sheila had gone through the alcove in a panic-fed rage, ripping the pastel paper and sheer curtains from the walls and insisting that they be replaced with layers of dark velvet. It had taken an inordinate amount of time and energy on both his and Greer's parts to find a decorator who could fill their unusual need; someone who would haul fabric and wallpaper samples back and forth, who could then hang the wallpaper and stitch the draperies from Sheila's choices, and whom Sheila felt would not only be trustworthy but also discreet about her unusual illness and about their personal lives.

They had settled upon an older woman named Dolores, who Sheila said reminded her of Andy Taylor's Aunt Bee, and who seemed equally comfortable in either business suit or painter's coveralls.

After Sheila, who had been so well adjusted to her secluded life as an agoraphobic, was kidnapped by a so-called friend of Jeff's, life as they knew it had gone to hell.

It had happened a month earlier. Jeff had found her intact, with no physical injury, and had returned her to their home with what he hoped was a minimum of trauma.

Ever since then, though, he had beaten himself up over what had happened. If he had stuck to antiques instead of reverting to his FBI training and dabbling in a murder investigation, his wife's emotional well-being might have been spared. She would have disagreed, he knew, had he voiced this belief. Five years earlier, when he had announced his resignation from the bureau's special unit that investigated museum thefts, she had seemed to understand even more than he did that the work was in his blood, that the transition might never be fully complete.

But he couldn't burden her with his nagging thoughts now, so he kept them to himself.
Or, at least, he thought he was keeping them to himself, until the counselors and doctors who had been called in to treat Sheila suggested that a few sessions might do him some good as well. He'd waved them off with neither consideration for their suggestions nor comment on their reasons, and had managed the last few weeks on adrenaline and caffeine.

Following the abduction, Jeff had brought in four psychiatrists with varying specialties, three herbalists and alternative-medicine experts, and two general practitioners. He wouldn't have objected to a partridge in a pear tree if he had thought it would help restore his wife's health-or what was her personally accepted level of health.

Time, that's what it boiled down to. She would need time to adjust to exchanging a once-quiet existence for the parade of medical professionals that tramped through the big old Victorian home like carolers through slush. And she would need time to recover.

Meanwhile, Jeff and Greer lived with their quasi schedule-a malleable plan by which to make sure that someone was always with Sheila, that the household somehow got run, that the bills got paid, and that nobody starved.

Jeff noted Dolores's progress with the wallpaper, then headed up the service stairs. This time he ran into Polly and Lucy Wing, the spinster sister team that he employed as housekeepers. Although the pair had worked for him before he had known either Sheila or Greer, he had turned the supervision of them over to his butler as soon as he had hired him. To their credit, both were taking extra care around Sheila in order not to disturb her or make her uncomfortable.

Greer had offered to take over the housekeeping duties after Sheila's ordeal, so that the number of people entering the home could be reduced, but Jeff had nixed this idea, and Sheila had agreed. She assured both men that the women, who had been cleaning the massive house every Tuesday for years, didn't pose a threat. Jeff was secretly relieved to hear it, and he was sure that Greer was, too, although the well-schooled butler never would have admitted as much. Greer had more than enough on his plate for the week. Thanksgiving was in two days, and, although Sheila wasn't sure whether she could join in, she had insisted that their traditions continue.

Polly and Lucy bowed slightly, and Jeff returned the gesture. Then he hoisted the package and, with a sigh, carried it toward the second-floor bedroom he shared with his wife-the room that had become her cocoon.

(End of Chapter One)



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