Sheet-covered shapes loomed like ghosts in the dim light.
Tia Jordan pushed the door open further and entered the room, stirring up dust and setting off another series of sneezes. A half brick lay on the hardwood floor, along with shards of glass, but other than the broken window, the room looked much like the others she’d viewed—lifeless, dirty and neglected for nearly half a decade. The huge old house had all kinds of potential. It would just require weeks of work to make it livable.
But she wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
When she’d gotten the call from the attorney saying she needed to be present for the reading of Elizabeth Sloan’s will, she’d been pleased but not surprised. She’d met the woman only a handful of times, when she’d participated in the services her church held at Mrs. Sloan’s nursing home. But learning she’d been named in the will hadn’t been a surprise. In the two years since opening Peace House, Tia had benefited from several fundraisers organized by the citizens of Harmony Grove and been the recipient of a couple of United Way grants.
She’d gone to the lawyer’s office expecting to be ushered into a conference room with family members and possibly representatives from some other charities to receive a small cash donation. Instead, she’d sat alone with the attorney and learned she was the sole heir to the estate, except for an absentee grandson. He would inherit all the personal effects inside the house except for the furniture, on one condition: That he could be located within six months of her death.
Tia crossed the room and moved the drape aside. A blanket of steel-gray clouds hung low in the sky, the midday sun somewhere behind. She swiped a hand down one of the dirt-coated panes and squinted at the back yard. Actually yard wasn’t the right word to use. Yard implied at least a loose sense of organization—grass, shrubs, flower beds, with some kind of defined edges for each.
Instead, the landscape looked as if someone had come in with a bush hog every few months and mowed down thigh-high growth. It was currently overdue.
Ten minutes ago, she’d stepped from her car onto the cracked concrete drive, then made her way up the front walk, an unruly blend of weeds and grass encroaching from both sides. She’d been cautious, actually jumpy. There’d been too good of a chance of running into a snake. Or two. Central Florida rarely got cold enough to slow down the creepy-crawlies, even in early December.
She let the drape fall and moved away from the window. The yard had a lot of potential, just like the house. It was large, with plenty of room for outdoor living, places where tormented souls could find serenity. That potential was what she’d focus on—the end result. Not all the work it would take to get there.
Of course, she’d have help—volunteers from local neighborhoods and businesses, high schoolers doing their community service for scholarships, even some of the battered women she took in. Some who came through her doors threw themselves into activity, hoping to outrun the demons that pursued them. Others sat alone, quiet and withdrawn, temporarily disconnected from life.
Tia had done both.
She moved back through the room, toward the open doorway. Judging from the shapes of the sheet-covered furniture, the space had been used as a den. She’d reappropriate it as a bedroom, to be able to house the largest number of women and children possible.
Now finished with her tour of the first level, she headed toward the grand stairway. Upstairs there’d likely be four or five bedrooms.
She’d almost reached the entry when the ominous creak of hinges sent a chill up her spine. She froze, then backtracked into the den, her sneakered steps soundless against the wood floor.
She’d locked the front door after entering. She always locked doors. The practice almost kept at bay that ever-present sense of vulnerability.
Did someone pick the lock or enter with a key? A caretaker maybe?
No, there hadn’t been any caretaking done at the place in months. It wasn’t the grandson, either. After leaving the lawyer’s office, she’d come straight here with the key, anxious to see what had just been dropped in her lap. The preliminary search for the grandson had so far turned up nothing.
Whoever was inside the house with her had entered without ringing the bell or knocking. That automatically made him a threat.
Footsteps sounded, moving closer, and she squatted behind a sheet-covered object. It was probably a desk, judging by its shape and size. Particles of dust sifted into the air around her, and it started again—that tell-tale tickle in her sinuses.
No, not now. She pressed a shaking finger to the space above her upper lip. Wasn’t there supposed to be a pressure point there somewhere, something that could hold off a sneeze?
The sensation passed, and she released a silent sigh. She’d remain hidden until she was sure her unwanted visitor posed no threat. Running a home for abused women and children had made her wary.
Actually, her own experiences had put her guard up. But events then had only creased that wariness. More than once, an irate husband or boyfriend had railed outside the shelter, threatening to kick in the door if she didn’t open it. On both occasions, she’d called the police. With her location a block from Main Street, they’d arrived almost immediately.
Now, she was a good ten minutes from the outskirts of Harmony Grove. But that wasn’t her only problem. With her purse sitting on the kitchen island and her cell phone inside, calling for help wasn’t an option.
Screaming wouldn’t bring assistance, either. Since she was closed up in the house, the nearest neighbor a quarter mile away, no one would hear her. She’d be hard-pressed to defend herself, too, if the need arose. Her rifle was locked in its case back at the shelter, and her pepper spray was in her purse, along with her cell phone.
The footsteps stopped. “Hello? Anyone here?”
The voice gave her pause. He didn’t sound threatening. With that warm, smooth baritone, he could be hosting a late-night radio show…or singing love ballads.
Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Neither did good looks, charm or a charismatic presence. All too often, those were just tools used to con unsuspecting, naive women. And once these men got them where they wanted them, they had all kinds of ways to keep them there.
Tia pressed her hand against the silk scarf draped just below her throat and ducked even lower. Her safest bet was to remain hidden until the man left. Or slip out and drive away if he ventured upstairs. The footsteps began again, heavy male ones, and that sneeze she’d successfully stifled erupted with almost no warning. She clamped a hand over her nose and mouth, trying to seal off any spaces where noise might escape. It didn’t work. Instead of a full-blown sneeze, she ended up with something between a snort and a half-hearted raspberry.
She rose from her hiding place. Whoever he was, he wasn’t going to find her cowering in the corner, plastered behind a desk. She’d worked hard to shed that “victim” label. It had apparently worked. People described her as having a lot of spunk, bold and fierce.
She put on a good front.
She crossed the room and stepped into the hall. Not ten feet away stood the man behind the voice. He had her beat by a good eight or nine inches. Of course, at five foot two, she didn’t meet many people who didn’t beat her height. She couldn’t guess how much he outweighed her by. He was well-muscled, athletic—someone large enough and strong enough to inflict some pain, especially with no one to come to her aid.
Except there was kindness in his eyes, and though he wasn’t smiling, his jaw was relaxed. Dark brown hair curled over his ears and against his shirt collar, and the end of his nose was just shy of straight, as if it had been broken at some point. Maybe he got hit in the face with a softball during Little League.
He lifted his eyebrows. “Who are you?”
She frowned. “Who are you?”
She nodded slowly. The long-lost grandson. The attorney must have found him. Or more likely, he’d heard his grandmother had passed away and had come hoping to get something. It was amazing how kids and grandkids could ignore their elderly relatives for years on end, then come out of the woodwork when there was possible money to claim. He probably wasn’t happy, thinking she’d swooped in and stolen his inheritance right out from under him.
Let him think what he wanted. She certainly wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. The fact that she’d just moved to Harmony Grove four years ago and had seen his grandmother more times than he had spoke volumes. He didn’t deserve any more than he was getting.
Actually, she didn’t, either. But the women and children who would benefit did. If he hoped to talk her out of anything she’d been left, he was in for a rude awakening.
She had a legitimate will and needed every bit of her unexpected inheritance. Her own ranch-style home with its subdivided rooms was filled to capacity and bursting at the seams. With a much larger facility, she’d have the means to help so many more women and children.
He stared down at her. “And you are?”
She squared her shoulders, ready to do battle. “Tia Jordan. Of Peace House.” If he hadn’t heard of the shelter before, he’d know it now since it had been listed in the will.
Jason stood studying her, as if expecting some kind of explanation. Finally, he shook his head, confusion etched into his features. “Did you work for my grandmother or what?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“So what are you doing here?”
Was he serious? Did he really not know? “Have you read the will?”
“I have. A copy has been in my mother’s possession for some time.”
A sliver of her defensiveness slid away. “I guess you’re here for the personal effects.”
That look of confusion returned. “Yes, I will be going through the personal effects, but my plan is to get the place cleaned out and sold as quickly as possible.”
Her chest heated as irritation shot through her. Maybe he was used to pushing people around and getting his way. It wasn’t going to work this time. She had a will and that decided it, regardless of what he thought was fair.
He was named; his grandmother had included him. His father was named also, with an inheritance of ten dollars. There was no oversight. Both men could fight it all they wanted, but they didn’t have a leg to stand on.
Except Jason didn’t seem combative. She’d gotten much better at reading people, and the only emotion she was picking up from him was confusion.
She eyed him uncertainly. “You do know that, except for the personal effects, your grandmother left everything to Peace House?”
He shook his head, one hand planted firmly on his hip. “That’s impossible.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve got a copy of the will, and she left everything to me.”