I almost forgot to post chapter two of Rescuing Lara. Life gets crazy.Sorry about that.
Around nine the next morning, Conn pulled off the narrow dirt lane leading to Lara Spenser’s place and parked his rented Harley Electra beside a low stone wall bordering her small patch of land. Glancing at her house as he swung off the bike, he wished his mother could see it. She’d love the thatched roof, white stucco, red shutters and flower boxes.
He removed his helmet and gloves, shrugged out of his jacket and slung it over one shoulder. For now, he left the rest of his few belongings stowed in the Harley’s saddlebags and trunk behind the seat. Pushing open the creaky wooden gate in the wall, he sauntered to Ms. Spenser’s front door, knocked and waited. When the cook/housekeeper finally opened up, she screwed up her mouth and gave him a condemning glare.
“Morning,” he said, receiving a stiff nod in reply.
“Herself’s just now risen. Ye’ll wait out here until she’s ready to receive ye.” With that, the woman shut the door in his face.
Irritated, he raised his hand to push his way in but thought better of it. Getting into a fracas with her was no way to start his temporary job. Rather than cool his heels while he waited, he deposited his gear on a bench next to the doorway and set out to familiarize himself with the property, aiming to spot any places where intruders might conceal themselves. He’d never worked as a bodyguard but his days in the Army had taught him to recognize a security risk when he saw one.
Conn completed his tour fifteen minutes later. He’d noted a thick row of gorse bushes along the back lot line but doubted anyone would be fool enough to hide among those prickly plants. However, a weather-beaten garage behind the cottage, housing Ms. Spenser’s small hatchback and an assortment of gardening tools, was worrisome. So were the low stone walls dividing her land from neighboring plots. The enemies she feared could easily crouch behind those walls or hide in the garage. He’d have to check them often, chiefly after dark to make sure no one lay in wait, ready to invade the house.
It was a warm morning and he’d worked up a thirst. He downed a healthy swallow of water from the canteen he’d filled back at the hotel and was clipping it in place between the Harley’s handlebars when he heard the cottage door creak open. Prepared to face his surly nemesis again, he was pleasantly surprised when the lady of the house rolled her chair to the threshold. Dressed in another long skirt, a green and yellow flowered one this time, and a pale yellow top, she looked as bright as the Irish morning. A black and white cat squeezed between the chair and the door jam, halting to stare at Conn warily.
“Good morning, Mr. O’ . . . I mean Connor,” Miss Spenser called out.
“Morning, ma’am.” Hurrying toward her so she wouldn’t need to shout, he admired her welcoming smile and the silky black braid draped over one shoulder. As he drew near, the cat shot outside and ran lickety-split around a corner of the cottage.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare off your friend,” Conn said with a wry crook of his lips.
His golden-eyed employer gave a little laugh. “Don’t worry, he’ll be back in time for supper. He loves to eat. His name is Penguin, by the way.”
“Good name for him.” From what he’d seen as the animal streaked past, his black and white coat did kind of resemble a penguin’s markings.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting.”
“No problem. I used the time to look over your property.”
Fine dark brows dipped over a small, straight nose. “Did you find anything suspicious?”
“Not a thing, but there are some areas I’ll want to keep an eye on. You might also want to have some motion detectors installed.”
“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that. I’ll look into it.” Her worried frown lifted. “Will you come inside? There’s coffee if you want a cup, or tea if you prefer.”
“Ma’am, I’m a Texas boy.” He bent to retrieve his jacket and helmet. “The only tea I drink comes in a tall glass with lots of ice.”
She laughed and swung her chair around, letting him follow her into the house. “I used to feel the same way, but Una has converted me, except for first thing in the morning. I have to have a cuppa joe to wake up.”
He grinned. “Do I hear a hint of the south in your voice, Ms. Spenser?”
Stopping abruptly, she almost caused him to bump into the back of her chair. She pivoted a quarter turn and peered up at him, her expression guarded. “You must have heard wrong. I’ve never lived south of New York City.”
That was a lie if he’d ever heard one. He wondered why she didn’t want him to know she hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line, but he let it pass. “My mistake, Ms. . . . Lara.” He gave her his most disarming smile. “Do you mind if I call you Lara?”
“No, that’s fine,” she said after a brief hesitation. “Now, I’m sure you’d like to see the room you’ll be using.” Turning away, she pointed to a flight of narrow stairs dividing the hallway from a parlor crammed with furniture and whatnots. “There’s a bedroom in the loft. I had Una clean it and make up the bed for you.”
“Thanks.” I just bet the old bat loved doing that, Conn thought, laying his gear on a low step. “I’ll bring in my stuff later. First, I’d like to know your plans for the next few days and what you’ll need me to do.”
She shrugged. “I’d like to go into town one day and do some shopping. You’ll need to drive me there. Outside of that, I mainly want you to keep watch around here.” Bending her head, she twisted her hands together. They appeared white against the folds of her bright colored skirt. “I . . . I have a feeling trouble is coming.”
Conn narrowed his eyes, studying her for a moment. “I could use that coffee you mentioned. How ’bout you join me and tell me more about this feeling of yours?”
Raising her head, she nodded and led the way to the kitchen, where Una poured two coffees for them, lips pursed like she was sucking a lemon the whole time.
“Why, thank yuh, Ms. Una. That’s right kind of yuh,” he said in his best southern boy drawl, relieving her of the steaming mugs. He winked and had the satisfaction of hearing her gasp. Her jaw dropped and her eyes nearly popped out of her head.
A strangled sound came from Lara, drawing his gaze. She hastily spun her chair and disappeared into the hall. Deciding he’d better get out of range from Una’s rolling pin, Conn strode after the boss lady. He followed her into her office, shutting the door just as a clatter of pots and pans broke out in the kitchen.
“You mustn’t tease Una like that. She doesn’t have a sense of humor,” Lara said, facing him. She met his grin and couldn’t quite hide her amusement.
“Has she been with you long?” He handed her a hot mug, handle first, then eased into the flowery chair he’d occupied the day before, hoping it wouldn’t collapse under his weight.
“No, only a few weeks. I hired her shortly after moving in here. She’s a widow with one son. He runs the family farm not too far from here, and she augments their income by hiring out.” Sending him a pointed look, Lara added, “She was between jobs when I arrived here, much to my good fortune.”
“I’ll try not to antagonize her,” he said, getting the message. He stretched out his legs and crossed his ankles. “Now, tell me what you meant about feeling trouble coming.”
“It’s hard to explain,” she said, studying the contents of her mug. “I don’t know if you believe in ESP, extrasensory perception that is.” Glancing up, she waited for an answer.
“I’ve never given it much thought.” Frowning, he added, “Although, I do have a friend who has an uncanny knack for . . . unraveling mysteries, let’s say.”
“That’s interesting. He very likely has a form of ESP.” A smile flitted across her lips. “Many people consider special powers of the mind to be hogwash, but I assure you it’s not. I and several members of my family are psychic in one way or another. My mother saw glimpses of future events. My sister can . . . .” She paused, eyes downcast. “Sh-she moves objects with h-her mind.”
Conn wondered what had caused her to hesitate and stammer, but he didn’t ask since she quickly recovered from whatever it was.
“As for me, I have an unpleasant ability to sense when I and those close to me are in danger.” She watched him as if expecting him to scoff at her statement.
“And you’ve been sensing you’re in danger lately,” he said, willing to believe her, at least for now. He was rewarded with her sigh of relief.
“Yes, and the feeling is growing stronger. I thought I’d escaped the Hellhounds, those who drove me from my home, but I fear they’ll soon discover where I am. If they do –”
“If they do, they’ll have to go through me to get to you, and they won’t find that easy.”
She set her mug on the table beside her chair, which she evidently used as a desk, judging by the pen, paper and small laptop computer sitting there. “I believe you’ll do your best to protect me, Connor. Otherwise I wouldn’t have begged you to take the job, even if it is only for a short time.” Dropping her gaze again, she picked at the folds of her skirt. “But I must be honest. You could be putting your life in danger by agreeing to help me. The Hellhounds are ruthless. As I said yesterday, they’ve already caused the death of someone I loved.”
“Sorry about that, Lara.” He swallowed a long pull of coffee. “Reckon I oughta be honest with you, too.” Catching her sudden wary expression, he hurried to explain. “I wasn’t always in the firefighting business. I spent eight years in the Army Special Forces.”
“Oh!” Her golden eyes grew huge and her lips worked, but no other words came out.
“Don’t mean to brag, but I can handle most anything that’s thrown at me. So you don’t need to worry.”
She gave a jerky nod. “Th-that’s good to know, Connor.”
“My friends call me Conn. Why don’t you try it.”
“As you wish . . . Conn.”
He toyed with his empty mug and eyed her curiously. “Now, I’ve got to ask, why do you call the bad guys hellhounds? Is that what they call themselves?”
She laughed bitterly. “I doubt it. My Uncle Malcolm called them that. In folklore, Hellhounds often guard the land of the dead. The most famous one is Cerberus, a three-headed dog with razor-sharp teeth and enormous strength. In Greek myth, it guarded the gates of hell.”
“Huh. Not a bad name for a pack of killers, and that’s what they are, right?”
“Yes, they’re vicious killers,” Lara said in a tone dripping with acid. She stared at him but was obviously seeing someone, or something, else. Her gold eyes glittered with hatred, bringing to mind a black panther Conn had once encountered while carrying out a rescue mission in a Central American country. The animal hadn’t made a sound and, after their silent standoff, it had melted back into the jungle, leaving him shaken.
Feeling much the same now, Conn cleared his throat. “You said you’d like to go into Killarney. How about today?”
She blinked and returned from wherever she’d gone in her head. Fingering the pendant she wore, a gesture he recalled from yesterday, she nodded. “Today will be fine, I guess.”
“Good. I’ll bring the car around and wait out front while you get ready to go.” Rising, he grimaced. “After I drop my mug off with the she-wolf in the kitchen.”
Lara’s lips twitched. “Come now, surely a Special Forces veteran isn’t afraid of a middle-aged Irishwoman.”
Glad to see her good humor restored, Conn cocked an eyebrow. “I dunno, she looks like she could take a man’s head off with that rolling pin of hers if she had a mind to.”
His pretty boss burst out laughing as he walked out.
* * *
Lara gripped the arms of her chair while Conn wheeled her backward down the steps of the dress shop. Packed in a storage pouch at the back of her chair were a lovely skirt and top to augment the meager wardrobe she’d brought with her when she fled her Louisiana home. She was happy with the garments but glad to escape the curious customers and store employees, whose furtive glances at her scarred face she hadn’t failed to notice. She sighed in relief as her tall, dark and silent escort pushed her along Killarney’s High Street.
“You’re very good at this,” she said, doing her best to ignore the curious, pitying looks she received from passersby.
“I’ve had some practice. My mother is disabled. She’s been confined to a wheelchair or electric scooter for years.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Conn. May I ask how she became disabled?”
“She has a hereditary disease, nothing you’ve ever heard of.”
“Hereditary? D-does that mean you may have it too?”
“No, I’m lucky. I didn’t get it.” He went quiet for a moment then added in a flat tone, “But my sister did.”
“Oh.” Thinking of her own missing sister, Lara needed no psychic ability to sense how hard it was for him to be the lucky one. “Is . . . is she also stuck in one of these?” She tapped her chair’s plastic armrests.
“Not yet. She wears AFOs – like the one you have on and gets around pretty well with a cane, but sooner or later . . . .”
“I see.” So he knew about the rigid plastic ankle-foot orthosis, commonly called an AFO, she wore on her injured right leg, did he? She was always careful to keep it covered under her long skirts, but she supposed he’d noticed it when he lifted her in and out of the car.
“Um, do you see them, your family, very often?”
“Tamara, my sister, lives on the West Coast, so we don’t get together often, but Mom still lives in Fort Worth, where I grew up. I make it back there every few months.” Slowing, he asked, “Do you want to go in here?”
Glancing at the drugist’s shop, she shook her head. “No, I’m not in need of any medications or toiletries just now. Oh, but I would like to stop in the record shop. It’s just around the corner and down a short way on New Street.”
Hoping to lighten their conversation, she said, “You mentioned you’re here on vacation, but what made you choose Ireland and County Kerry in particular?”
“Like I told you, my crew just finished a job in the North Sea. It was a rough one and I . . . I needed a break. Ireland wasn’t far away, and my mother’s been after me for a while to come over here and dig up our family roots. I promised her I’d give it a try.”
Lara gasped in dismay and twisted to look up at him. “I’m making you break your promise to her, Conn.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay. She’ll understand.”
“No, it’s not okay. I won’t be able to live with myself if I cause you to let her down.”
“Either I watch out for you or I go hunting for my ancestors and leave you in the lurch. Is that what you want?” He quirked one dark eyebrow.
“N-no.” Frowning, she faced front for a moment. Then an idea dawned and she again turned in the chair, heart suddenly racing. “I’ll help you! That way you can do both, be my bodyguard and fulfill your promise to your mother.”
He blinked and stared at her in surprise; then he frowned. “That’s not a good idea. I might get distracted by, uh, the search. That could be dangerous for you.”
“But I really want to help you trace your ancestry and being away from the cottage might be a good thing, don’t you see? If the Hellhounds track me down, they won’t find me there. Not while I’m off somewhere with you.” She held her breath, watching his frown slowly lift. His mouth – his very nice mouth – crooked up at one corner, a habit she was growing used to.
“You’re mighty convincing when you want to be. Okay, we’ll see what we can do, although, to be honest, I have no idea where to start. The only clues Mom could give me were a couple names and the fact that our people came from County Kerry.”
She returned his grin. “I know exactly who to ask for advice – Una. She’s lived her whole life in this area. We’ll ask her how to go about the search.”
Conn cocked his head to one side and gave her a look that said she’d lost her mind. “That woman can’t stand the sight of me. You really think she’s gonna do anything to help me?”
Lara refused to be deterred. “Let me think about it. I’ll come up with a way to convince her.” With that she faced forward once more. Only then did she realize they’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking foot traffic. And people were eyeing them as they sidled past on either side, giving her those pitying looks she hated.
“We’re in the way. Let’s go to the record shop,” she said more sharply than she intended, cupping her scarred right cheek with her hand.
Conn sighed. “Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.”
Within moments they arrived outside Roxy Records, the small shop she’d spied from her car window on a previous trip into Killarney, with Una’s son, Riley, behind the wheel. He’d frightened her half to death with his reckless driving, and she’d vowed never again. Conn’s driving was calm and controlled, hardly what one might expect from a man who rode a motorcycle and dressed like a biker. Even now, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, which clung to his broad shoulders and impressive abs like a second skin, he still had a bad boy look about him.
He maneuvered her into the record shop and over to the classical music section as she requested. While she searched through CDs for something she might enjoy, he wandered off to look over the place. Twenty minutes later, she found him up front, leaning on the counter, talking with the clerk. He held a bag in one hand. He smiled and straightened when she approached.
“You found some music you like,” he observed.
“Yes, I think so. It looks as if you did too.”
“Oh, just a little something.” He moved out of the way, allowing her to lay her items on the counter.
The clerk, a young man who looked all of sixteen, took her money, gave her change and bagged up her purchases, glancing at her cheek several times, making her feel like something from a carnival sideshow. Anxious to get out of the store, she started to accept the bag from him, but Conn reached over her head and took it from the youth. “I’ll stow this in your tote,” he told Lara.
“Thank you,” she said curtly, annoyed by his action even though he was only trying to help. Once they were outside, she said, “I can do some things for myself, you know.” She tried not to sound cross but evidently failed.
He slowed their pace to a crawl and stopped. Setting the chair’s brakes, he walked around in front of her and squatted. His steel-gray eyes probed hers. “You’re angry. You didn’t like me grabbing the bag from that nosy kid before you could, is that it?”
She glanced from side to side. They were blocking the sidewalk again and people were eyeing her as they edged around her chair. Face growing hot with embarrassment, she hid her scarred cheek behind her hand. “Don’t do this, not here,” she said in a strained whisper. “Take me back to the car. Please.”
He muttered a disgusted curse but rose, released the brakes and pushed her steadily, silently along. Neither said a word until they arrived at the car park where they’d left her rented blue auto. He lifted her into the passenger seat, closed her door and stashed the folded up chair and their packages in the back, all without speaking. However, when he slid in next to her, he unleashed his tongue.
“Look, I didn’t mean to set a burr under your blanket. If you don’t want me to do little things for you, fine, but tell me so now. And for God’s sake, stop covering up your scar every time somebody looks at you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
His words stung. Turning her head, she stared out the window. “I’m sorry for lashing out at you. It’s just that I don’t like being dependent on anyone.” She touched the scar and her voice grew raspy. “As for this, I feel like hiding away in the dark. It’s so ugly. I’m ugly.”
“Woman, you are not ugly.” He gripped her chin and made her face him. “We all have our scars. Some show on the outside, some don’t, and I’ve seen a hell of a lot worse than yours.” He traced the raised tissue lightly with his thumb. “Even with this, you’re beautiful.”
Lara jerked back, away from his touch. “Save your false flattery! I know what I look like, and I . . .” She gazed out the window again. “. . . I hate the sight of myself in a mirror.”
He sighed. “Then you’re either blind or a fool.”
She didn’t reply as he started the car. Not for a second did she believe he truly thought her beautiful.