Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday's Chapter - Eye of the Storm - Renee Simons

Stormwalker is one of my all time favorite heros. Have read this book several times.

Chapter 1

The man sitting on the corral fence had killed her fiancé. He belonged in prison. And two months from now, she would send him there.
Reigning in her fury, she walked toward former Marine Major Michael Stormwalker, who watched a mare and her filly nuzzle beneath a brilliant South Dakota sun. Pretty as it might have been, the scene left her cold.

Stormwalker also seemed at odds with the idyllic setting. Every aspect of his posture radiated the edgy power of a man alert to any sign of threat. Beneath a black leather vest, his broad shoulders hunched as if he waited to spring into action. Long, powerful legs tapered to ragged boot heels resting lightly on the bottom rail. Smoke from his cigarette streamed past a rugged profile nearly hidden by the satiny black hair falling across his cheek. Massive, brooding, he personified danger. He was exactly what she expected of a stone-cold killer.

Until he faced her. His startling sea-green eyes warmed with appreciation and the ghost of a smile turned up one corner of his mouth. Expecting curiosity, even a hostility echoing her own, she found his undisguised interest both disconcerting and infuriating, his admiration an unwelcome intrusion. Her hands curled into fists and she shoved them into the pockets of her linen jacket. She would not allow herself the luxury of anger when all her energies must be directed at bringing this man to justice.

As if reading her thoughts, he let his gaze turn cool and detached. "You're Zan McLaren."

"Alexandra McLaren," she said. Her steady voice pleased her.

"Sorry. Your brother always calls you that."

"My brother can."

The smile returned. Some women might have considered it a sexy smile. She, of course, did not.

"You have your brother’s concise way with words,” he said. “Do you also share his objectivity?"

"Is that a family trait?"

"If it isn't, I can't trust you'll do the right thing."

"And that is. . .?"

"To get at the truth even if you don't like what you find."

"What if you don't like what I find?" she asked.

"An informant tipped your brother that I’d been set up by a mole buried deep in his beloved Federal Security Agency. That new information allowed him to negotiate my release. I may be outside a cell, but unless I can restore my career and reputation I might as well be back there."
He braced his shoulders. The movement told her that being "back there" had no place in his plans.

We’ll see, she thought. "Who restores Dar's life?" she asked.

"I wasn't responsible for his death. Not even the Navy Tribunal could make that charge stick." His eyes narrowed. "Look, you'd have to be a saint to help someone you believe committed treason and killed the man you loved. So if you can't, I'll understand. I'll find another way."

"As far as I'm concerned, you're guilty on both counts." She took a slow breath to calm her pounding heartbeat. "But I'll search until I find the truth. Is that objective enough?"

He seemed to be evaluating her response. And well he should, she thought. Only a fool would accept her at face value. He was no fool.
"Why did you come here if you think I'm guilty?"

Someone had to pay for Dar s death. She straightened to her full height and met him eye to eye. "I want to be the one who sends you back."

One eyebrow raised. "You're honest."

"I try."

"You don't mind being on the reservation?" he asked.

"I think this so-called new information is a crock and I intend to prove it. Where I do my work is irrelevant." She matched his penetrating gaze, steeling herself against the wicked gleam in his blue-green eyes. What matters to me is your spending the next 25 years behind bars.

Breathing a sigh of relief, she turned and started up the street toward the newspaper building. She'd managed to get through their first meeting with her composure still intact. Almost.

"Where're you off to?" he called out.

He strode toward her. When his long legs brought him to her side, she did nothing to hide her annoyance. He raised one hand palm out.

"I'm not checking up on you," he said. "I thought if we were headed in the same direction we could walk together. That's all." He repeated the gesture of a moment before. "That's all."

His proximity left her too conscious of his powerful build, too aware of his quiet but potent masculinity. She gave herself a mental shake. His smiles and magnetism would never change the fact that the man had deprived her of the love of her life..

"I'm going to see the newspaper editor," she said.

"Same here."

She shrugged and they walked north beneath a sun drenched summer sky. The air floated light and dry without any hint of humidity to give it weight. Their steps raised small puffs of dust that settled on the tips of her boots, dulling their spit and polish shine.

Several people passed, greeting Stormwalker warmly, nodding politely in her direction. When a man in his forties stopped to talk, pleasure softened the major's features. They spoke in Lakota, freeing Zan to look at the houses lining Thunder Valley Reservation's main street.

Some were well-kept, the grounds surrounding them tidy. Others showed signs of the poverty and apathy of their occupants. Paint had peeled, brick facing lay strewn on the ground, broken windows had been mended with cardboard or plastic sheeting. Like bizarre and rusting sculptures, remnants of worn-out machinery and vehicles dotted the landscape.

Zan felt something smack softly against her toe and looked down at a battered soccer ball. A boy watched her. Somewhere off to her right a screen door slammed. A horse whinnied in response, setting a dog to barking. She kicked the ball back to the youngster. He scooped it up and cradled it under one arm, his face expressionless except for the laughter dancing in his dark eyes. A familiar yearning tugged at her. She and Dar had wanted a big family.

"Sometimes I think about having one of my own," Stormwalker said.

"A soccer ball?"

"A kid."

"I did, too. . .before. . . ." Before you killed the dream, she thought.

Anger and sadness washed over her in unbearable waves. She had to distance herself from the man who had caused them or be overwhelmed. She turned, but had taken only a step or two when she felt the gentle pressure of his hand on her arm. Though momentary, his touch lingered on her skin with the warmth of a soft desert breeze. Why hadn't the bitterness churning in her gut protected her against its effect?

"I'm sorry for what you've lost."

His voice seemed to echo her pain. She stared at him without responding.

"I know you don't want to believe this," he said, "but I'm innocent. I didn't compromise either the agency's or the nation's security. I didn't trade secrets for money. And I did not kill Dar O'Neill. By the time you're finished here you'll know the truth. I guarantee it."

The sincerity that burned behind his eyes and vibrated in his voice might have given her pause if she didn't know better.

With a calm she didn't quite feel she countered, "I'm just as positive that when my two months are up, you'll be on your way back to prison."
All emotion fled behind the mask he assumed. Satisfied she'd made her point, she walked away. Once again, he matched her steps.

"Why are you still here?" she asked.

"I have a message for you from your brother."

"Couldn't you have told me sooner?" She really didn't want an answer and held up a hand as he started to respond. "What did he say?"

"He wants you to get in touch with Ken Becker."

"From the agency? What's he doing here?"

"He retired some years back. He's running the probation department in town and acting as liaison between us and the Federal Security Agency."

Apparently, the mole in her brother's organization worried him enough to send him to the outside for help. As head of the FSA, the decision was his to make, but she wasn't sure she agreed with the move. Any more than she'd agreed with his assigning Dar to the case that had gotten him killed. Reversing direction, she started for her car.

"Change your mind about going to the newspaper office ?" Stormwalker asked.

"For the moment."

With its top down, the MG sped along the highway. Zan gripped the wheel with a white-knuckled ferocity born of rage. Her pulse pounded with it; her lips flattened to a thin, tight line. How she hated dealing with a man who'd killed with impunity, who'd violated every principle of loyalty and honesty she lived by. Hated this world of intrigue and the fact that she'd allowed her brother Mac to drag her back into it when she'd promised, vowed never to return.

Yet here she was, about to plow through the very agency databases she once maintained, on a search for evidence of Stormwalker's innocence or, she hoped fervently, guilt. Because she'd refused to set foot inside the Virginia compound, Mac had okayed Thunder Valley as a work site. If the mole followed Stormwalker there, Zan would provide backup in a confrontation. Big Brother had decided that "covering the major's butt" was a small price to pay for the chance to return him to federal prison. A lot he knew.

The brief first encounter with Stormwalker had taken every ounce of self- discipline she possessed and still had nearly broken the back of her restraint. So how could she hope to function during the next eight weeks? She slammed her palm against the steering wheel. What did eight weeks matter when measured against the five years since Dar's death?

She would harness her rage so it worked for and not against her. She would turn around negative emotions and use them to achieve something positive. No problem. She could do that. She'd done it. More than once.

The knowledge calmed her. For the first time, she glanced at the speedometer. She'd been tooling along at 85 in a 65-mile-an-hour zone. She adjusted the speed downward. Not in time, however. In the distance, but closing fast, a siren blared. She parked on the shoulder and waited for the sheriff's patrol to pull over. The deputy walked back to her car and did a quick, visual check.
"License and registration please, ma'am."

Zan handed over her identification. He examined the contents of the black leather folder and grinned at her. "Hey, there, Officer McLaren, you should know better."

"You're right, Deputy. I should."

"Well, at least I won't have to listen to any dumbass excuses on this one." He walked around the car, as if checking the plates, then returned. "Where you headed?"

"Just cruising around."

"Cruisin' and then some." He shook his head. "Why's the New York police in such an almighty hurry?"

"I'm not on the job. Just on vacation."

"You ain't gonna enjoy it much from the ass end of a ditch. So I suggest you slow things down just a mite."

"Thanks for the warning, Deputy." She gave him a questioning glance. "It is a warning?"

"This time, and only 'cause Kenny Becker asked me to watch out for you. If you don't abuse the speed limit with this little hot rod of yours, we'll get along just fine."

"I'll watch myself. Count on it."

With a momentary thought to why Kenny had announced her arrival to the sheriff's department, she turned the key, waved and put the car in gear to finish her trip to the town of Crossroads.

At Town Hall, a security guard pointed her in the direction of the Cabot County Probation Department. One flight down and to the right, Zan saw the sign that said, "KENNETH BECKER/KNOCK ONCE AND ENTER." She followed directions.

The man behind the desk looked up and smiled. He'd been a mainstay at the agency, hardworking and loyal, completing every assignment in an efficient, if unimaginative, way.

"So here's where you've hidden yourself all these years," she said as they shook hands.

"This is a pretty sweet deal." He flipped his wire rimmed glasses to the top of his head, where they rested precariously on his disheveled and thinning sandy hair. He pointed to the general area of her midriff. "How's the injury?" he asked.

"Healing. How did you find out?"

"Word got around you'd been shot on the job. Everyone knew you'd joined the NYPD after O'Neill was blown away."

His choice of words stung, but death was a reality all agency field operatives accepted without melodrama.

"And here we are, back in service of the FSA," Becker said.

"I guess my being on recuperative leave was too good an opportunity for Mac to ignore," she said.

Kenny shrugged. "He needed you. He would have found another way to get you."

"So much for being in control of my life." She gave a short, bitter laugh. "I see he 'unretired' you."

"I'm just helping out during the current emergency."

"You could have refused."

"You heard enough talk around the McLaren dinner table to know that when the big boys issue an invitation, you show up in your best bib and tucker."

"I can't believe you approve of Stormwalker's release or his being here."

"Mac would have had to call in a bunch of favors to manage that. He wouldn't have gone to the trouble without good reason." He handed her a sealed packet and a blue manila folder. "You'll have to sign for the package. The folder's mine. Would you care to take a look at the major's stats?"

She opened the folder and went straight to transcripts of his court martial. They contained information about Dar's death that had been held back from all but those directly concerned. She had not been one of them.

Her cursory reading revealed little in the major's favor except his denial of guilt and his own version of events. She needed more time to go through the thick file.

"Can I borrow this?"

"For a day or two; then you'll have to return it."

Zan rose. "I met a deputy sheriff on the way here, 'Winter' I think his name tag said. Do we want the locals to know I'm here?"

A flush dusted Kenny's pale cheeks and his lips thinned for a fraction of a second. "Only Deputy Winter. You never know when you'll need backup."

The husky quality in his voice told her she'd hit a nerve. Did he think she'd questioned his judgment? She smiled. "I would have thought that was you, Agent Becker."

His answering smile failed to reach his eyes. "Not any more. I'm retired. Remember?"

While she could only guess at the source of the sour note, it certainly was there. "Thanks for the consideration. I'll see you day after tomorrow." She scribbled her initials on the receipt and held up the folder. "To return this."

Eager to get at the material Mac had sent, she completed her errands and headed back to the reservation.

Her camper stood beneath a lone cottonwood tree so it would benefit from the shade and still be convenient to the utility poles behind the newspaper building. As she made the turn, she spotted Stormwalker towering over the newspaper editor in the doorway of the long, red brick building. She parked in the shadow of the camper and walked around to the two men.

Mike Eagle was leaning against the door frame as she approached. "Can I help you with something?" the newspaperman asked. His frigid tone reinforced the feeling he would give that help with reluctance.

"I just wanted to let you know that the power and light people will be out day after tomorrow to run a line to the camper and the phone installers the day after that."

"You're not wasting a minute, are you?" the man asked.

"I have a lot to do in a short period of time."

Stormwalker looked from Zan to Mike. "I didn't know you and Ms. McLaren knew each other, Uncle."

"Oh, yeah. Though I can't say I like her bein' here."

"I had no idea you were related," Zan said.

"Not by blood," Stormwalker said. "But we function as an extended family on the rez. He's been a second father to me most of my life, and like a brother to my mom."

"Yeah," Mike said, watching Zan with suspicion. "His parents and I go so far back you could say I knew him before he was born. After five years in prison, he's finally home and I don't want him taken away again. But then, we discussed all this when you first got here."

"Yes, we did. And I told you then I would do my best to be honest and fair."

Mike Eagle's skepticism showed on his face. "I've seen many examples of the white man's justice, and it's neither honest nor fair."

"I understand how you feel, Mr. Eagle. Frankly, if I'd known how close you are to the major, I wouldn't have put you in such an awkward position. So if my being around makes you uncomfortable, I'll find somewhere else to work."

"If you're here I can keep an eye on you."

"Is that important?"

"The only way I'm gonna feel safe is to know what's going on. So, you go ahead with your plans." He raised a hand. "But the first sign you're screwing up my nephew's life, you're outta here. You got that?"

"Fair enough," she replied. "I'll make sure the workmen don't disturb you too much." She nodded to Stormwalker and left.

As he watched her go, an errant beam of sunlight caressed her hair, turning it the color of burnished copper. He looked at Mike, who was examining him. "What?" he asked.

"You trust her?" the older man asked.

"Maybe. You obviously don't."

"No further than I can fling a rattler."

Stormwalker grinned. "I'm surprised you'd give her even that much working room."

"Only because of the way you look at her."

"And how's that?"

"Like a hungry mountain lion contemplating his next meal."

Stormwalker's gaze followed the woman down the street. He watched the subtle sway of her hips and the long denim-clad legs. "I don't think one meal would do it, Uncle."

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