War vet Matteo Soarez's assignment is simple: watch and listen. An undercover agent for Corps Security and Investigations, Matt learned patience the hard way on a dusty desert battleground. So sitting in a Texas cafe waiting for information is a piece of cake--make that a piece of pie. Faith Scott's cherry pie, that is. The young cafe owner and mother-to-be could light up a room with her smile, and send a jaded ex-soldier's heart racing like a stallion with just a touch. But Matt's job involves saving the governor's life, and protecting vulnerable single mothers isn't his priority. Yet when Faith's cafe becomes the epicenter of danger, Matt knows he cannot let Faith and her baby become collateral damage. Even if it means compromising the mission....
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May 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Baby Bootcamp by Mallory Kane
Matt Soarez watched Faith Scott float across the chipped vinyl floor of the diner, a tray of dirty dishes in her hands and a smile on her face. She expertly maneuvered her pregnant belly between the tables and chairs, noting which coffee mugs needed refilling.
As she elbowed open the swinging door to the kitchen, she glanced briefly at Matt. The words of a Neil Young song about an unknown legend played in his head. He understood how Neil felt. Matt would gladly sit on this bar stool and order forty cups of coffee a day if that meant Faith's crystal-blue eyes would meet his forty times.
But that wasn't why he was here. Bart Bellows had given him a job in Freedom, Texas, gathering intel about the locals. According to Bellows, the Talk of the Town Caf� was the best place in town to hear all the local gossip.
The breakfast crowd was by far the most vocal, sharing opinions about last night's news, commenting on newspaper headlines and gossiping. Mornings were a gold mine in terms of gauging the political climate in Freedom.
Dinner conversations were very different--not nearly as much political conversation. Early diners were there because they didn't want to cook. Matt quickly discovered that their conversations generally centered around their jobs, their families and their favorite TV shows, so after the first couple of days, he'd started coming in late, after eight o'clock, and sitting at the counter.
He was becoming an expert on people who ate in restaurants. He'd identified three types of late diners: disgruntled coworkers complaining about their awful jobs, lonely people who dreaded going home and couples in love. He learned a lot about good and bad employers in Freedom and heard intimate details he didn't need to know about some of the lovebirds.
Still, he liked this time of the day the best. He could enjoy the Talk of the Town Caf�'s great food, and if he ordered a second piece of Faith's homemade pie, he could hang around until she closed up at nine o'clock. Sometimes, if she wasn't too busy, she talked to him.
A shout of laughter pulled his attention back to the breakfast crowd. He surveyed the room through the mirror tiles on the wall behind the counter.
Sheriff Bernard Hale was sitting in his usual spot by the window looking out onto the main street as he shoveled down his bacon and eggs. His breakfast partner, Mayor Arkwright, hadn't shown up yet. Matt glanced at his watch. Seven-thirty. Sheriff Hale was up early today.
More laughter erupted from the table directly behind Matt where two more regulars, Stan Lorry and Fred March, sat.
"Then Davidson said, 'The governor better be careful going out in the wind. If her skirt catches a breeze, her constituents might be surprised to learn--'" Lorry collapsed in laughter, unable to finish his sentence.
Fred March slapped his knee. "I don't know how he gets away with what he says on the air. I guess 'cause it's late night talk radio." He looked over at Sheriff Hale. "Hey, Sheriff? Can you arrest Allan Davidson for being too funny?"
Matt's jaw tensed. For the past week, the only variation in March and Lorry's conversations was the shock jock radio host's latest slam against Texas Governor Lila Lockhart.
"Even if I could," Hale muttered around a mouthful of eggs, "that two-bit clown would have nothing to worry about."
Stan Lorry's mouth was still stretched in a grin, but through the mirror Matt saw the harsh look he aimed at the sheriff.
"That's where you're wrong, Bernie. A lot of people think Davidson knows what he's talking about. Our dear homegrown governor's turning against the people who helped her get where she is. Davidson thinks she's wanting to run for president. He says that'll be dangerous."
Matt bit his tongue to keep from saying something. He'd been in Freedom for a week and was accepted in the way a stray dog is tolerated as long as he stays out of the way and doesn't pick a fight with the other dogs.
To these folks, he was just another itinerant construction worker, in town temporarily to work on a project at Bart Bellows's estate.
Matt couldn't risk blowing his cover.
He glanced casually at Sheriff Hale. The sheriff's eyes met his, and his head moved in an almost imperceptible shake as he lifted his mug to his lips. Matt got the message.
Let it go. Just do the job Bellows sent you here for. I'll handle these guys.
The front door opened with a jingle of the bells hung over it, and a man Matt hadn't seen before stepped in. He looked like someone's paint-by-number idea of an old cowboy, except that his jeans were new and his shirt was pressed.
"Sheriff," he said, nodding at Hale.
"Henry," the sheriff responded without looking up.
"Henry!" Stan Lorry called out. "Where you been?"
"I was down on my back for a few days, Stan. You writing a book?" Henry groused.
"Might some day," Stan shot back. "You been listening to Allan Davidson this morning?"
"I ain't got time for his nonsense," Henry said. He eyed Matt up and down, then walked up to the counter and took the stool beside him.
"Henry Kemp." He stuck his hand out.
Matt took it. "Matt Soarez," he responded.
"Soarez?" Henry let go in midhandshake. "What kind--"
"Morning, Henry," Faith said from the other side of the counter as she set a coffee mug firmly down in front of him. "Coffee?"
"Sure, honey. And my usual breakfast." Henry Kemp watched Faith fill up the mug, then turned his attention back to Matt.
"You're new around here." It sounded like an accusation.
"Yes, sir. I'm working a construction job."
"Yeah? How long you been here? Can't be more than a week, because I was in here last Tuesday."
"No, sir. Matter of fact, I got here last Tuesday night."
"Humph. Where'd you say you were working?"
"Outside of town--"
"You're working at Twin Harts, aren't you?"
At that instant, Faith set a plate of eggs, bacon and toast down in front of Kemp. He barely glanced at it.
"Do you have any idea whose place that is?" he said, his voice rising in pitch.
"Here we go," Fred March muttered.
"Actually, Mr. Kemp," Matt said, "I'm not--"
"It's our esteemed governor's family. Yep. And they're all a bunch of thieves and lowdown cowards, including her. What're you building for them? Another swimming pool? A bigger garage? More stables?" Kemp stood up and jabbed his forefinger into Matt's arm.
Matt stayed still, consciously relaxing his jaw. His job was to gather information, not cause problems. If he could control his temper through Henry Kemp's tirade, maybe he could find out exactly what the man had against the governor, because he definitely had a problem with her. So Matt wrapped his hands around his mug and didn't respond.
"I know it don't mean anything to you. You probably don't give a damn whose pockets your pay comes out of. But everything those yellowbellies own they took from me."
Kemp doubled his fist and jabbed his thumb at his own chest. "From me! Stole it just as sure as I'm standing here." Henry squinted at Matt, who met his gaze without speaking.
"Ah, what the hell, nobody listened to me back then, and nobody's listening to me now." He picked up his plate and his coffee and headed toward an empty table. Then he turned back.
"You, Soarez, you better watch your back. One of these days the Lockharts are going to get what's coming to them, and you don't want to be standing too close when that happens."
Sheriff Hale stood and picked up his mug. "Henry," he said with a warning note in his voice.
Kemp glowered at the sheriff.
"Isn't the twins' birthday in a few days?" Hale walked over to the table Kemp had chosen and took a seat.
Watching through the mirror, Matt had a profile view of Henry Kemp. At the sheriff's words, Henry's scowling face melted into a smile.
"Saturday," he said. "I'm bringing them here for their favorite treat--banana splits."
"How old are they going to be?"
"Four. They're like little twin dolls. Can you believe it? I remember when Lindsay was a baby herself." He looked up at Hale. "That was about the time the Lock-harts beat me out of that land. Hell, sometimes it seems like yesterday." Kemp shook his head and dug into his eggs.
Matt relaxed, and he saw the sheriff's stiff back bend a little. Hale had defused a confrontation and put Kemp at ease. Seeing the aplomb with which Hale handled him, Matt figured keeping Henry Kemp from blowing his top was close to a full-time job.
Faith's melodic voice washed over Matt like a cool shower on a hot day. She was standing beside his bar stool, coffeepot in hand. He couldn't help but smile. Just looking at her soothed his eyes, and the faint scent of strawberries that surrounded her eased the tension in his jaw.
But this morning her tone was as cool as her voice--a big change from the night before, when she'd sat with him while she closed out the cash register and talked about her grandmother.
"I'd better not," he said. "Too much coffee makes for a hard day when you're working construction." He picked up the water glass and drained it, then laid several bills on the counter.
"I'm sorry about the commotion," she said. "Mr. Kemp can't let go of the past."
Matt nodded. "I got that. He resents the Lockharts for their wealth and success." Then he gave her a little salute with his coffee mug. "I'll see you this evening."
Faith's brows wrinkled slightly as she nodded, and her hand drifted across her rounded tummy in an absent, protective gesture. As he stood, she reached for his empty mug and knocked the bills to the floor.
"I'll get them," Matt said.
Faith was already crouching down. She retrieved the money and started to rise, then stopped with a little grunt of frustration.
"Here," Matt said, offering his hand. By then Lorry and March were out of their seats and Sheriff Hale was rising.
"I'm all right," Faith said evenly but accepted Matt's hand and let him pull her upright. For a beat, she stood there gripping his hand, her gaze locked on to his. Then she pulled away.
Her face turned pink as she glanced around the room with a sheepish grin. "No more deep knee bends for me until Li'l Bit here decides to make an appearance."
Everyone laughed and went back to their breakfasts.
"Sorry," Matt said, his gaze following a strand of blond hair that escaped the braid that had slipped over her shoulder. "I didn't mean--"
"It was my fault." Faith stuck the bills into her pocket and headed around behind the counter. Her face was still bright pink.
Matt left the Talk of the Town Caf� and seated his Texas Rangers baseball cap on his head. After their long conversation the night before, it surprised him that Faith was so cool this morning. Did she regret telling him so much about herself? It wasn't a lot--just that her grandmother had raised her and when she'd died two years ago she'd left Faith the caf� with its upstairs apartment.
Maybe she was upset that he hadn't shared much about his own past. He tried to avoid talking about himself. If Faith innocently passed along any tidbits he told her, someone with money or connections might be able to trace him. If he were to be effective in uncovering the threat to Governor Lockhart, his background had to remain a mystery.
As he pressed the remote to unlock his pickup, his cell phone rang. He frowned and glanced around. Nobody nearby. He answered as he climbed into the cab and started the engine. "Soarez," he said softly.
"Soarez, it's Bellows."
Matt's shoulders straightened and his chin lifted. "Yes, sir," he responded crisply. The respect and deference due to a senior officer was ingrained in him from six years in the army.
A movement in the rearview mirror caught his eye. The front door of the caf� opened, and Stan Lorry stepped out, slapping his worn cowboy hat against his skinny thigh. He squinted in the direction of Matt's truck. Immediately Matt set the phone to Speaker and laid it on the console between the front seats. In his role as a construction worker, he had very little use for a cell phone.
Matt had carefully built his cover personality as a quiet man just doing his job: no pretensions, no expensive gadgets like a smartphone, not overly interested in the town except its ability to provide a good meal and a place to stay.
He consciously relaxed his shoulders as he started the pickup's engine.
"Can you talk?" Bellows asked.
"Yes, sir. I've got you on Speaker, but I'm driving in my pickup alone."
"Good. We need to meet."
Matt had only been in Freedom eight days. He'd gotten to know the names of most of the regulars at Faith's caf�, although this morning's encounter with Henry Kemp reminded him that he hadn't met everyone.
"Is there a problem, sir?" Matt asked. The other man's slight hesitation put him on full alert. "Sir?"
"I'll send my assistant out to get you some time this morning. You can grumble about being interrupted and afterward complain that I want an impossible change of some sort."
"Yes, sir." Matt hung up, wondering what was so important that Bellows couldn't tell him on the phone.
He drove to the renovated old stable just outside of town where he'd rented a furnished apartment. He retrieved his tools and headed for Bellows's estate.
Whatever Bellows had to tell him, it had to be something to do with the death threats Governor Lockhart and her family had been getting since rumors had surfaced that she might be considering a run for the White House.
Matt spent a long, hot morning working on widening the turnaround in front of the Bellows' mansion. It was nearly noon, and sweat soaked the neck and back of his T-shirt and had long since seeped through the bandanna he used as a headband. When he stopped to wipe sweat from his eyes, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Matt turned.
The man, dressed in a summer-weight suit, jerked a thumb back toward the house. "Need to see you," he growled.
A couple of workers stopped to look curiously toward Matt.
Matt finished wiping his face, shrugged and set his spade down. "I'll just wash up..." he started, but the large man shook his head.
With a glance and a shrug at his fellow workers that said, Bosses, what are you going to do, Matt followed the man around the house to an entrance he hadn't noticed. It was nestled into the side of the house and looked as much like a window as a door.
The large man opened the door and stood back to let Matt enter, then closed it behind him. After being in the bright sun outside, the room was pitch-black.