Hidden in the Wall
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Two months prior
Slightly lifting the skirt of her pale blue satin gown so the hem wouldn't brush against the asphalt, Stephanie Kessler picked up her evening bag, left her car in the parking lot of the Mossy Oak Inn and started toward the inn's ballroom. This was not just another of the many gatherings she organized for Magnolia College as the Alumni Relations Director. It was also the ten-year reunion of her own graduating class and she wanted everything to be perfect.
Steff paused long enough to check her slim, jeweled watch. She'd been so eager to renew acquaintances she'd arrived far too early. Rather than waste time pacing inside the inn or rearranging the lovely table decorations for the umpteenth time, she decided to stroll across to her office on the opposite side of the campus.
Not only was the balmy June evening ideal for a leisurely walk, she reasoned, the exercise would help her unwind. And checking her e-mail would show her whether she'd had any last-minute answers to her recent pleas for alumni financial support. In spite of recent fund-raisers, she was still coming up short on donations for the planned library expansion. That was worrisome.
A welcome breeze lifted Steff's short blond hair away from her cheeks. When she faced into the wind to take advantage of its refreshing coolness, her gaze rested on the imposing stone edifices of the college that had become the central focus of her life.
Campus was nearly deserted this time of year, which was why she was surprised to notice a tuxedo-clad figure whom she didn't recognize hurrying around the far end of the liberal arts building.
Assuming from his attire that he must be planning to attend the gala at the inn, she noted he was headed in the wrong direction.
Since she had plenty of time to spare, Steff decided to do her good deed for the day, follow him, and help him find his way to the reunion.
The height of her heels and the unevenness of the old brick walkway slowed her progress. By the time she got to the next corner her quarry was already disappearing past the science building.
The newer walkway in that area was a flat cement surface and she was able to travel faster. She proceeded as far as the quad and paused, puzzled. Shading her eyes against the setting sun, she squinted as she studied her immediate surroundings. The man couldn't have vanished into thin air. So where had he gone? Could he have ducked into one of the buildings they'd passed? Since no classes were in session this time of year, that didn't make sense. Besides, why on earth would he want to hide?
Feeling foolish for having followed a stranger halfway across campus, she decided to give up and resume her trip to her office. That was when she spotted him. He'd been temporarily out of sight because he'd been bending over next to the east wall of the library and the foundation plantings had masked his position.
The man was pacing now, as if measuring the distance from the library wall to the sidewalk. What in the world could he be up to? Stephanie asked herself. More importantly, who was he?
The setting sun backlit his form, making him appear in silhouette and causing her eyes to water when she tried to stare directly at him. The one thing she could tell was how furtive his movements were. Whatever he was doing, he obviously didn't want to be observed.
Internal warnings sounded in her brain and caused her to shrink into the shadows. Whoever he was, it would definitely be best if he didn't know she'd been spying on him.
Steff's nose tickled. Stupid allergies. She pressed her index finger across her upper lip to keep from sneezing. Her quarry had returned to the sidewalk and seemed to be walking along it with measured strides. Then he wheeled and repeated his path to the library wall at a right angle before he turned again.
Although she believed she was well hidden around the corner of the building, she held her breath. The man had stopped and seemed to be staring directly at her. Was he? Had he sensed that she'd been trailing him? She didn't see how he could know she was here, yet his stillness and apparent concentration gave her chills.
When he finally moved away from the library wall, she relaxed slightly. Now he was wiping the soles of his shoes on the lawn. That particular planted area was in deep shade, perfect for azaleas but often overly wet, especially after the kind of spring rains they'd had the past few days. He'd probably gotten his shoes muddy.
Steff shifted her own feet slightly, thankful she'd had the good sense to remain on the grass.
The unmistakable sound of masculine cursing drifted to her across the distance. She stiffened. She was about to backtrack to avoid encountering such an ill-mannered man when her nose took control. A violent sneeze erupted before she could stifle it, so powerful it bent her over at the waist.
She straightened. Froze. Gaped and stared across the intervening space at the man she'd been studying. He, too, had ceased all movement. Then he took a step toward her and began to peer into the shadows where she hid.
For a heart-stopping instant Steff thought he might actually be planning to launch an attack. She held her breath and stood stock-still, hoping she wouldn't sneeze again just in case he hadn't really spotted her. Her palms were damp, her pulse fluttering, her muscles tensing for flight.
A split second later she knew the tuxedo-clad man had other plans. He whirled suddenly and ran, disappearing quickly around the corner of the library.
Still frightened in spite of the logical conclusion that he didn't want a confrontation any more than she did, Steff turned and hurried in the opposite direction, back toward the inn.
The shadows created by the Spanish moss hanging from the trees reached out for her like clawing fingers of gray smoke. Every tree seemed to hide an unnamed menace, every footstep seemed to echo as if someoneor somethingwas closing in behind her.
She grabbed a handful of skirt to raise it out of her way enough to run, not caring that her high-heeled shoes were not designed for sprinting.
Every instinct insisted she had to get away. It didn't help that she saw no one in pursuit when she glanced over her shoulder. The danger was there just the same. She could feel it all the way to her bones.
"We have a problem," the caller said.
"I can't see how."
"Well, I can. I just paced it off. Unless they decide against building that annex by the east wall, the way they've planned, the new construction is liable to reveal everything."
"Then see to it that they change their minds."
"How can I do that?"
"I don't know and I don't care. Just do it. Use your influence as much as you have to. We both know we can't allow them to do a lot of digging there."
"It might be okay if they don't go too deep or too far past the corner. I can't remember exactly where the other trench was, can you?"
"Yes. But I'm not about to show up on campus and take the chance of ruining everything. You're there. You handle it."
He cursed as he stared at the phone in his hand. This was ridiculous. It shouldn't be his problem. He'd briefly considered using violence to keep their secret but he knew there was no guarantee that either of them would get away with another so-called accident. They'd been pressing their luck so far. It was bound to run out eventually.
"All right," he finally said. "I'll try."
"I suggest you do more than merely try. I suggest you succeed. Or else."
"Or else what?"
"You don't want to find out."
As he hung up he grimaced, then mustered his self-control, turned and headed for the gathering at the inn.
Steff had touched up her makeup and managed to compose herself outwardly by the time the reunion guests began arriving. She hoped that her carefully poised demeanor was adequately masking the tremors that continued to shoot through her every time she recalled her scare by the library. She didn't want anything to mar the festivities she'd worked so hard to plan, especially not her overzealous imagination.
Steff stationed herself by the main entrance to personally welcome new arrivals and was pleased to recognize old friends. "Cassie! Kate! How wonderful to see you both again! It seems like forever." She gave each of them a big smile and a sisterly hug. "I'm so glad you could make it."
"We wouldn't have missed this reunion for anything," Cassie said. She eyed Steff. "Great dress. Of course, if I had your millions, I could look like that, too." She giggled. "Not."
"I assure you, I don't have control of the Kessler checkbook," Steff countered. "If I did, I'd probably just pay for the library addition instead of arranging all those fund-raisers."
"I see your point," Kate chimed in. She took Steff's arm and drew her aside. "Who else do you expect tonight?"
"Quite a few of our old friends, like Jennifer Pappas and Dee and her sister Lauren. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate everyone from our class."
Cassie waggled her eyebrows. "How about the guys? I suppose Mason and Parker are too rich or too famous, or both, to show up."
"Actually," Steff said, "I know Parker is planning to come. Have you driven by the Magnolia Hall mansion and seen the way he's restored the grounds? I can only imagine what the inside looks like. I hear it's awesome."
"It would be nice to see Parker again," Kate said wistfully. "I always thought he was interesting."
"Speaking of interesting," Cassie drawled, aiming a grin at Steff. "Have you seen your former roommate, Alicia, lately? I hear she and her big brother Trevor are both back in Magnolia Falls."
Blushing, Steff nodded. "As a matter of fact, I've not only seen her, I've asked Whittaker Construction for a bid on some remodeling I'd like done in my office."
"Aha!" Cassie was clearly enjoying the moment. "I knew it. You always did have a thing for Trevor Whittaker, even if he was forever getting into trouble."
"I mentioned the job to him for Alicia's sake,"
Steff insisted. "He's supporting her while she goes back to school and gets her teaching credentials."
"Trevor is? Why?" Cassie asked.
"Because Alicia's husband left her high and dry four years ago when her boys were just babies."
"And you're only hiring Trevor forAlicia's sake? Is that what you're trying to make us believe?"
Both Kate and Cassie chuckled softly.
Thinking of Trevor raised fresh goose bumps on Steff's arms. Admittedly, there was something about that man that set her on edge. Though she had done her best to deny it, there had always been a kind of peculiar mutual fascination between them.
Beginning to smile at the ridiculousness of her thoughts, Steff rejected them outright. She was a mature woman of thirty-two, not a naive girl. If Trevor Whittaker thought he could still rattle her these days, he'd better think again.
"Uh-oh," Cassie drawled. "Speaking of good-looking men."
Steff's head snapped around. Her eyes widened. Alicia had apparently chosen her big brother as her escort because she and Trevor were coming through the double doors together. His dark hair was slicked back, yet still retained its wavy charm, and the tuxedo he was wearing set off his broad shoulders in a way Steff couldn't help but admire. The man was more than impressive-looking tonight. He was breathtaking.
Steeple Hill; January 2008
240 pages; ISBN 9781426811814
, or download in
Title: Hidden in the Wall
Author: Valerie Hansen
240 pages; ISBN 9781426811814
, or download in
Title: Hidden in the Wall
Author: Valerie Hansen
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