Authors: Jennifer Blake
A Louisiana Knights Novel, Book 1
Mandy wants only to be left alone; she knows nothing about the disappearance of her much older husband, and less about the thug who tried to abduct her. Forced to hide out in a backwater town, the last thing she needs is an overbearing deputy’s protection.
Lance, saddled with the protective instinct that goes with the name of Arthur’s most trusted knight, is stunned by his reaction to Mandy’s courage and beauty. But is he putting his life on the line for an innocent in danger—or for a Black Widow?
LANCELOT OF THE PINES
Copyright © 2016 Patricia Maxwell
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Published 2016 by Steel Magnolia Press, LLC
The last thing Mandy Caret wanted to do was answer the door. She put her hand on its brass knob, but then jerked it away again. Her heartbeat shook her chest as she tried to decide if it was safe.
No one was supposed to know she was here in this backwater town. Certainly, no one expected her to be holed up in a tree-shaded neighborhood of bungalows from the ’30s and ’40s where silver-haired ladies swept their sidewalks with straw brooms, cleaned windows with crumpled newspaper, washed on Monday, shopped on Wednesday, and drove aging sedans to church every Sunday.
Today was Thursday, which meant she’d been in the house five days. Everything had been fine until now.
Maybe religious advocates or a magazine salesman had found the quiet street. Or it could be the curiosity of the nice, granny-type next door had gotten the best of her; Mandy had noticed her peeping over the back fence between the two properties. It was also possible that old-fashioned southern hospitality had brought the pixyish white-haired lady to her door with a fresh-baked cake.
Or maybe it was a hit man out there, his handgun fixed with a convenient, well-oiled silencer.
Yes, and she might also be punch drunk from stress and lack of sleep, so wavering between hopeful fantasy and paranoia. What she needed to do was check out the visitor.
Whoever had installed the door’s peephole must have been a giant. Mandy considered herself of average height, but had to stand on tiptoe to look through it.
Her breath lodged in her throat.
The man on the front steps had mile-wide shoulders, a square jaw and a look of rigidly controlled patience about his firm mouth. A tan Stetson was set squarely on his head, and his eyes were concealed behind mirrored sunglasses. His brown-and-tan uniform fit as if tailored to his tall form, and included a badge on his shirt pocket, radio on his shoulder and holstered handgun at the wide belt that cut across his flat waistline. Behind him on the drive sat a white SUV with Tunica Parish Sheriff’s Department emblazoned on the side.
Mandy dropped back down to her heels and rested her forehead on the wooden door. The arrival of the law was never a good thing where she’d grown up; it meant someone was in trouble.
This time, she was elected.
When had everything gone so wrong? She hated this running and hiding. All she wanted was to be left alone. Well, or to have her life back the way it had been before.
A shiver moved over her. No, not that.
Never quite that.
The doorbell pealed again, setting up a discordant echo as if the deputy outside had stabbed the button too hard. The sound jangled along her nerves with near physical pain.
It was too much after everything she'd been through—the endless harassment, unanswerable questions and fear like poison in her veins. Reaching out before she could change her mind, she snatched open the door so fast that hot summer air hit her in the face.
“Deputy Benedict, ma’am, from the sheriff’s office.” He touched the brim of his hat. “Mrs. Caret?”
“What do you want?” Mandy hated the tremor in her voice, but there was nothing she could do about it.
“Sorry to disturb you, but I've been assigned to watch out for you while you're in Chamelot.”
Alarm stirred the hair on the back of Mandy’s neck. No one, official or otherwise, was supposed to be keeping tabs on her. “Assigned by whom?”
“That would be Sheriff Tate, though you needn’t worry he’s broadcasting that you’re here. Only he and I know it.”
“You’re certain of that, are you?” The more people in on the secret of her whereabouts, the greater the risk of a leak.
“You can rely on it.”
His voice was tight with irritation and the planes of his face had a stern cast. She didn't care. She'd heard this kind of meaningless assurance before.
Staying here in Chamelot wasn't going to work. She should have known the river-port town was too small, too quaint with its ancient buildings, virtually closed society and mossy traditions. The name even sounded old with its French pronunciation, like a combination of champagne and Merlot, similar to Chalmette further south, where the Battle of New Orleans had been fought way back when.
She’d still be in New Orleans if the detective she’d talked to a couple of times hadn’t convinced her to leave. Sheriff Tate was a good friend of his, he’d said. He ran a tight ship, was straight as an arrow and tight-lipped when need be. He'd make sure no one found her.
Sure he would.
Mandy could see herself reflected in the deputy’s sunglasses—a tousled-haired bottle-blonde, face too pale and with raccoon circles under her eyes from over-stretched nerves and sleeplessness. Not that it mattered. She’d given up worrying over how she appeared to men ages ago. No hunky deputy was going to make a difference.
“How is it you wound up assigned to me?” she asked in abrupt wariness.
He reached up to remove his sunglasses as if he realized they might be an annoyance. A corner of his firmly molded mouth tugged in a half smile. “You mean, how come the sheriff trusted me with the job? The answer is easy. I'm his chief deputy—and his cousin.”
Brown. His eyes were bourbon brown, and held a steadfast expression that made her want to trust him against all odds. It was a moment before she could attend to what he’d said.
“The sheriff’s cousin.” The words were flat.
“Five or six times removed and on my mother’s side.”
“Is that supposed to be important?”
“It is in Chamelot.” His eyes narrowed to dark golden gleams behind his thicket of eyelashes as he tucked his sunglasses away in his shirt pocket. “It means he’s not a Benedict like most of my other cousins between here and Turn-Coupe, next town down the road.”
He apparently didn't appreciate being questioned. Too bad. She didn’t have to accept his oversight just because he had connections.
“I appreciate the sheriff’s concern,” she said, “but you can tell him I don't need anyone to look after me.”
“You can take care of yourself, right?”
His voice carried enough hint of famous-last-words warning to be really irritating. “I’ll be in no danger as long as no one knows where I am.”
“And as long as I attract no extra attention, such as having a sheriff’s department vehicle show up in my driveway."
He made no move to go. “Sorry, ma'am, but I don't buy it. Your husband’s missing under suspicious circumstances and may be dead. You’ve been threatened, and you say somebody tried to kidnap you a couple of days ago. It looks as if you’ve got on the bad side of the wrong people.”
“That's not true!” Bruce couldn’t be dead, no matter how many times the cops suggested it; he was too big, too important. And she’d had no opportunity to get on the bad side of anyone.
“It may as well be, if you’re at risk because they think so. The fact is, you’ve become a target. If you don't have the sense to recognize that, it's going to be hard to keep from getting hit.”
Rage boiled up inside Mandy. She matched his immovable stance, putting her hands on her hips. “My intelligence or lack of it doesn't come into this. I know exactly how much danger I'm in, and have the bruises to prove it.
The fact is
, I didn't ask for your help and have no use for it. That means you can go away, and take your patronizing attitude with you!”
“I'd like nothing better,” he answered with hard precision. “But my orders are to stick to you like Superglue until this thing works itself out. We can do it nice and easy or it can be the hard way. It's up to you.”
She stared at him while the hard throb of her heart threatened to choke her. She felt intimidated, and that wouldn’t do. Not anymore.
Reaching blindly behind her, she caught the doorknob. "Not happening either way, Deputy Benedict.”
With a quick step backward, she slammed the door in his face.
Lance Benedict cursed under his breath. Whipping off his hat, he shoved his fingers through his hair and then slammed it onto his head again.
He could have handled it better, and probably would have if he’d been less on edge, less haunted by events of the night before. Added to that was how gob-smacked he’d been at first sight of the woman he was supposed to protect. For a second there, he’d lost sight of the reason he was standing in front of her.