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Anna Lee hung the grapevine wreath on the front door and then stood back to make sure the red raffia ribbon bow was centered at the bottom. Reaching forward, she righted the slightly crooked loop and then nodded with an attempt at satisfaction. After finally packing away the last of the Christmas decorations, she thought the wide front porch looked a bit bare and needed a friendly splash of color to combat the late January doldrums in Daleville. Alabama winters were genuinely mild but sometimes dreary and spring seemed a million months away.
“Pretty…” She inhaled deeply and then tried to muster up a smile but her bottom lip wobbled in defiance. “No!”
Anna Lee squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed hard, determined not to shed one more doggone tear over Nick Worth, the handsome but mysterious benefactor who’d swooped into her life over the holidays and then disappeared without a trace. If it hadn’t been for the renovation of three bathrooms on the second floor of her soon to be bed and breakfast, she would have thought that she’d dreamed the whole thing up.
At first, Anna Lee believed the handwritten note Nick had left behind along with his lovely Christmas gift. She reached up and touched the rosebud necklace, the only connection to a man who took her heart with him when he vanished from her life. Nick’s profession of love and his promise to return to Daleville had filled her with the kind of joy that made her want to reach for the sky and twirl around in a Julie Andrews Sound of Music moment.
But after the holidays ended, cold hard reality cast a shadow over her happiness. She had to face the facts… or, perhaps, the lack of facts would be a better description. After Nick’s cell phone number failed to connect, she’d searched for him on Facebook and Googled his name but had come up empty-handed. The federal historical society Nick claimed he worked for didn’t even exist. The only saving grace was the twenty-five thousand dollar grant that he’d supposedly awarded to her for renovations on her antebellum farmhouse turned out to be real. But the mystery of Nick Worth’s identity, and why he’d shown up on her doorstep claiming to be someone he wasn’t, was driving her absolutely plumb crazy. And, in spite of his deception, Anna Lee thought about him, dreamed about him, and missed him so much that her heart actually ached.
“Ah… damn it.” With a pitiful little wail, she sank down to the front steps and allowed pent up emotion flow with a chest heaving, nose running, good old noisy cry. Anna Lee let it all out until she was reduced to a shoulder twitching, shallow breathing, hot mess. “Oh, hells bells.” She sniffed hard, trying to make sense of the sudden odd turn her life had taken.
Finally spent, she shook her head and swallowed the remaining moisture in her throat. “All right, enough of this nonsense.” She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her sweatshirt sleeve while thinking she still had lots to accomplish on her to-do list before officially opening her bed and breakfast.
Wallowing in her misery wasn’t one of them!
But still, Anna Lee remained on the stoop with her elbows on her knees and looked out over the front yard through bleary eyes. A sudden gust of wind had Anna Lee zipping her hooded sweatshirt all the way up to her neck. She pulled the hood over the pixie haircut she’d sported for years but absently wondered if she should let her hair grow out? Maybe she’d bleach her honey-colored shade to platinum blonde. Or perhaps get a tattoo. She chuckled without real humor, thinking her misery was sucking the life out of her naturally happy demeanor, making her feel angry and downright grumpy. Well, she needed to put a stop to the pathetic path she was taking and get her life back on track.
With a shiver, Anna Lee glanced toward the front door but then lifted her chin and decided she wasn’t ready to go back inside the house just yet. The cool breeze dried the tears on her cheeks and she inhaled a cleansing breath of pine scented, country air.
Winter might be upon them, but she found beauty in branches of the bare trees reaching up toward the pale blue sky as if embracing the day. Two frisky squirrels chased each other around the base of the big oak tree and then scurried up the trunk. Birds chirped cheerfully back and forth, sounding as if they were having a lively discussion, reminding Anna Lee to purchase more bird seed the next time she went into town. Her late grandfather had been an avid birdwatcher and Anna Lee promised him she’d keep the feeders full of food. In the distance, the angry sound of a buzz saw indicated that a neighbor was busy chopping up some firewood.
“Life goes on,” she whispered, willing herself to feel a little bit better.
The high pitched ping of her cell phone made her heart lurch. She still held out a sliver of hope she might get a message from Nick. But when she took her phone out of her sweatshirt pocket she read Little Sis and slid her finger across the screen. Anna Lee had to grin at the picture of Amber’s face and hair completely dusted with white powered sugar and the caption beneath that read, A minor explosion. Really? How can baking cupcakes be this messy? Oh right… Mama is helping. And I use that term loosely.
Anna Lee chuckled softly. Since the disappearance of Nick, Amber found countless ways to send something funny Anna Lee’s way. During the toughest of times, the Culpepper household remained filled with laughter so Amber and Anna Lee knew first hand that mustering up a smile was the best way to chase away the blues. Anne Lee felt the warmth of her sister’s love reach out and sooth her frazzled state of mind. “Ah, thank you, little sis.”
Anna Lee longed to call Amber just to hear her sister’s voice but Amber had her hands full running her ice cream and cupcake shop up on Main Street. And their mother, bless her heart, was usually at Delicious Surprise to lend a well-intended but not so helping hand, which usually caused more havoc than assistance, at least when it came to anything in the kitchen.
After Nick’s abrupt departure, her mother had hovered over Anna Lee with constant rib crushing hugs and cheek cupping reassurance. And while Anna Lee truly appreciated her mother’s loving concern, Anna Lee also knew Nick’s disappearance brought back memories of her father’s desertion of their family and so Anna Lee refrained from calling her mother even though she actually could use a bit of hovering and a tight squeeze right about now. Her mother and Amber were heading to Alabama Shores in two days for a much needed vacation and had begged Anna Lee to join them but she’d refused with the excuse that she had too much work on the house to accomplish.
Anna Lee’s stomach rumbled, making her recall she’d skipped breakfast, but, in truth, food held little appeal these days. Amber’s delectable cupcakes from Delicious Surprise couldn’t even tempt Anna Lee’s troubled tummy. Her favorite wine failed to dull her pain. And every sad song on the radio seemed to be about her life. She was, in a word… miserable.
And it was really starting to tick her off.
Anna Lee sighed, thinking she should be over the moon that the renovations to the farmhouse were going so smoothly and she might be able to open up her bed and breakfast sooner than she’d anticipated. The grant, wherever it had come from, had been a godsend.
“Who are you Nick Worth?” she whispered.
Closing her eyes, Anna Lee swallowed hard and then unzipped her hoodie enough to touch the rosebud necklace she’d worn since Christmas Eve. When she’d opened Nick’s gift and read the note, asking for her to believe in him along his promise to return, she’d decided she’d faithfully wear the necklace until he came back to Daleville. In his note, he’d pleaded for her to believe. And in that magical Christmas moment, Anna Lee had taken a leap of faith and trusted in him.
“And look where that got me.” With another glum sigh, Anna Lee dropped her fingers from the rosebud pendant that had supposedly belonged to Nick’s mother, but, at this point, she didn’t know if that was even true. Stop it. She tried to return her attention to the squirrels frolicking in the front yard.
With a groan, Anna Lee reached up and massaged circles around her throbbing temples. She couldn’t think of one plausible reason why Nick couldn’t contact her and it sure wasn’t for lack of trying to figure it out. Sleepless nights had her conjuring up scenarios that were soap-opera-plot worthy.
But, seriously, what had been the motive for Nick showing up on her doorstep? And if not from the historical society, where in the world did the grant money come from? And why would he give it to her?
“Oh wow…” Anna Lee’s heart thudded and she put a hand over her mouth. Should she have actually cashed the check without knowing the true benefactor? “Oh, my goodness, maybe not…”
Then another thought crossed her mind. Could her absentee father be involved? Or her grandparents? Did they finally feel a sense of guilt and want to come to the aid of their only grandchildren? Anna Lee looked up at the blue sky and groaned again. She had to come to terms with never having closure with Nick or seriously go bat-shit crazy. So, she gritted her teeth and pushed up to her feet.
“Just stay busy,” she said, but just as she took a half turn to go into the house, she spotted a sleek, black sedan approaching her driveway.
For a moment, she forgot to breathe. For some reason, she felt the need to reach up and touch the rose pendant and rub her thumb over the gold petals. Anna Lee stood motionless as the car came to a slow, rolling stop.
Dust settled and everything, even the birds, went quiet and seemed to wait in anticipation of who was going to emerge from the car. Or perhaps, the sudden silence stemmed from all of Anna Lee’s senses being zoned in on the black sedan, causing the rest of the world to fade into the background.
Time seemed to slow down as the driver’s door opened. Long legs emerged and a tall man in a dark blue suit walked her way. His short, cropped hair, mirrored aviator sunglasses, and purposeful stride gave him the air of someone in authority. Anna Lee’s first instinct was to take a step backwards and then she remembered this was her house and whoever it was behind the glasses was about to know that she was in charge. She dropped her fingers from the rosebud, folded her arms across her chest and gave the man in the blue suit a lift of her chin.
“Hello,” she said, politely but firmly.
“Anna Lee Brody?” he asked but his tone suggested he already knew her identity.
“Yes,” Anna Lee replied in a nearly steady voice. “May I help you, sir?” She somehow doubted he wanted a room for the night.
Pushing his sunglasses up higher on his Roman nose, he took a step closer. “As a matter of fact, yes.”
“And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?” Anna Lee’s heart hammered in her chest.
She felt as if she needed to be standing on the porch with her grandfather’s shotgun perched on her hip, but, then again, she was afraid of guns and she’d most likely shoot herself in the foot. A big water pistol might do nicely. She almost grinned but the firm set of his mouth indicated he was about to say something serious.
“Dylan Thompson, special agent, FBI.” He reached inside of his suit and flashed identification at her. The sun glinted on the silver badge making her blink. He flipped his leather case shut and extended his hand toward her.
“FBI?” she said more to herself than to him.
Anna Lee gave him a firm handshake even though her knees felt weak and her entire body wanted to slither to the ground. A thousand questions exploded in her brain. Was this visit about Nick Worth? Was Special Agent Dylan Thompson going to ask for the check back, which just so happened to be already spent on new bathrooms?
“What brings you to my doorstep?”
“May I come inside and have a talk with you?” Special Agent Thompson asked but his tone indicated she didn’t have a choice. “I can explain.”
“I… uh…” Wait, was he really from the FBI or an imposter as well?
Should she ask for another form of ID or someone to call to verify his authority? Just what in the world was going on in her life? This was Daleville, Alabama for heaven’s sakes. Things like this just didn’t happen here or to her, even though she had no idea what kind of thing she’d found herself involved in.
“I do believe I have a right to know what this is pertaining to first, if you don’t mind my asking.” Thankfully, her crisply uttered request didn’t reflect the wild beating of her heart.
“Something involving national security,” he said in a grave tone.
“I see,” Anna Lee said, even though she didn’t have a clue what this could be about. “But, Agent Thompson, I do believe we can discuss this whatever-it-is right here on the front porch.” She sat down quickly so he couldn’t see her knees knocking. She hoped that he couldn’t tell she’d been crying her eyes out just a little while ago. “For the moment, I will take your word that you are who you say you are. But I prefer the discussion to remain right here.” Oh, why couldn’t she have a fierce dog to whistle to so he could trot over and loyally sit by her side?
“Very well,” the so called FBI agent agreed but remained standing. Although he oozed intimidation, she didn’t exactly feel afraid, but anxious. If she had committed a crime by cashing that check, it was in complete innocence.
Anna Lee wished he would take those doggone sunglasses off so she could see his eyes. She folded her trembling hands together, trying not to appear as anxious as she felt but then thought she looked as if she were praying and grabbed her knees in a death grip instead. Sucking in her bottom lip, she gazed at him and waited.
“Well…” Agent Thompson cleared his throat as if knowing what he was about to say might upset her.
She blinked, trying to keep calm even though her heart was doing a tango back and forth in her chest. “Oh, for pity’s sake, would you please just get on with it?” She surprised herself by saying. “You’re killin’ me here.” She added, hoping a bit of humor would defuse the seemingly tense situation.
“Sorry.” He failed to crack even hint of a smile, making a shiver slide down Anna Lee’s spine. Did he have a gun? Okay, perhaps killing wasn’t the word she should have used. Was he going to take her to a small room and interrogate her until she cracked? Put her in handcuffs? Take a mug shot?
Don’t let him see you sweat. “Seriously, with all due respect, I have things to do,” she said, wishing she wore something more impressive than paint spattered jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. “Really important things.”
“I understand. Forgive me for the intrusion,” he said, not seeming sorry at all.
She gave him a lift of her chin, trying not to appear intimated but her stomach betrayed her and rumbled like rolling thunder. “And I haven’t had lunch,” she said primly. “So…” She gave him a let’s-get-on-with-it gesture.
Agent Thompson’s lips twitched and she wasn’t sure if it was from humor or irritation. She hoped the former.
“Okay.” Clearing her throat, Anna Lee decided to get straight to the point. “Does this visit have anything to do with Nick Worth because…” She began but then trailed off when the passenger door to the black sedan swung open and captured her full attention.
“Yes,” Agent Thompson replied. “As a matter of fact it does.” He continued talking but his voice seemed far away, as if he were speaking through a long narrow tunnel. All of Anna Lee’s focus remained on the emergence of the man who had been haunting her dreams since Christmas Eve.
Unlike Agent Thompson, Nick wore jeans and a long-sleeved, red plaid, flannel shirt but, even dressed casually, an air about him commanded attention. She noticed his dark brown hair was a little bit longer, curling over his ears and playfully falling over his forehead. A dark, five o’clock shadow shaded his cheeks making his blue eyes stand out even more than she remembered.
Nick walked slowly, almost as if measuring his thoughts as he approached her. The closer he got, the harder Anna Lee’s pulse pounded. He stopped near the edge of the steps but remained silent. The cool breeze kicked up leaves and brought the subtle but potent scent of his spicy aftershave her way, making her breath catch. She wanted to look away but her eyes refused to cooperate.
Feeling at a disadvantage sitting down, she wanted to stand up but her legs, like her eyes, also refused to obey her command. Her brain suddenly had too many tabs open and so she just sat there, dumbfounded.
Anna Lee almost reached up to touch the rosebud pendant but refrained and was supremely glad the necklace was hidden beneath her sweatshirt. But she felt the gold against her skin, a silent reminder of his promise. Nick had returned to her.
“Anna Lee Brody,” Agent Thompson said, “may I present Prince Royal Nicholas Mackenzie Worthington.”
Holy… wait… what?
Anna Lee thought it was a good thing she had remained sitting down because he could have knocked her over with a feather. “P-prince?” She swallowed hard while thoughts starting spinning in her head. Of all of the possible explanations she’d dreamed up, this wasn’t one of them. “A prince? Of…of…”
“Calloway Island, a principality located on the Caribbean side of the Virgin Islands,” Agent Thompson said as if announcing this to her was perfectly normal.
“Oh.” Anna Lee nodded, pretending that the explanation made sense to her. She looked over at Nick… no Prince Nicholas, hoping he would speak, maybe suddenly burst into laughter and tell her she’d been punked, but his expression remained serious. “Well, if y’all have a glass slipper, I have to admit that I wasn’t at the ball,” she said and the royal prince finally smiled.
End of Excerpt