Sunday, March 9, 2008

2008 EPPIE WINNER - Romantic Suspense Category


Chapter One

Ace Bear blew warm breath into his cupped hands and pulled his parka tight around his neck against the bitter cold rolling off the Atlantic. A northeast wind battered the desolate area with the vengeance of a Viking wreaking havoc on a peasant village. He’d forgotten how harsh and unforgiving late fall could be on the Maine coast, forgotten the bone-piercing chill, the way his eyes watered and the inside of his nose stuck together when he breathed. He yanked his collar higher and buried his nose into the warm down.

Leaning against the rough bark of a spruce tree, he stared at the picturesque white clapboard church. Places of worship didn’t mean much to him. He preferred to talk to God as he walked through a forest, paddled on the big lakes or gazed at the night stars.

All the guests must be inside by now. It was do or die time—do or let go time. Hell, he thought he’d let go a long time ago. He stared a moment more, pushed away from the spruce and walked forward.

Heads turned when he entered, probably expecting the bride. Many of the faces were familiar. Ace stifled the urge to raise his hand and say “how” like Indians in those old black-and-white movies. Benches squeaked as people leaned over to whisper to their neighbor. He slipped into an empty pew at the back and shrugged out of his coat.

Word rippled through the crowd. Ace Bear had showed up at Brenna MacKenzie’s wedding. And by the Jesus, he was dressed in buckskins and had his hair in a braid. Ace tuned it out. There were more important things to worry about than the local yokels.

A gust of wind signaled the bride’s arrival. Brenna entered the church, her hand curled around her brother’s arm. She floated by, an ethereal vision lost in yards of lace and satin. Ace’s heart lurched at her paleness. She looked fragile enough to shatter.

He hadn’t planned on facing Brenna today, but he’d heard about her getting married and had no choice. He had to stop this farce of a wedding.
Spinster Sadie Harvell’s bony fingers pounded out the bridal processional on an out-of-tune piano. The woman must be over a hundred by now. Brenna reached the groom’s side too soon for Ace’s peace of mind. He shifted on the hard bench and glanced at his watch for the tenth time. Where the hell was Chris? If the kid didn’t show up soon and disrupt the wedding, the task would fall to him, and he’d rather not draw any more attention right now.

A smile tugged at his lips. Ace Bear causing a scene was something this community expected. Today, they’d be disappointed. As much as he’d like to rock this coastal town on its ass, he had to keep a low profile. The fact that he’d returned at all was enough to stir up the natives.

Ace tensed as the groom’s gaze came to rest on the rise and fall of Brenna’s breasts beneath the sequined bodice. Long suppressed anger shot through him. He’d drag her out of the church, kicking and screaming before he’d let that bastard touch her. Despite what Brenna had done twelve years ago, she didn’t deserve to be shackled to a man like Anson.

Reverend Marston smiled at the bride and groom then turned his attention to the guests. “Welcome everyone. We are gathered here—”

From the right side of the church came a loud pop. A window imploded, showering a section of the congregation with glass. Mouth working like a fish out of water, the Reverend dropped to the floor and scrambled behind the podium. Chaos reigned. Blood spurted from a gunshot wound in Anson’s shoulder and splattered bright red drops on the white wedding gown before he slid to the floor. The screams of several women echoed throughout the church, adding fuel to the bedlam. A few dove for cover; others crawled toward the side exit.

Damn it. He’d told Chris to disrupt the wedding, not shoot the freakin’ groom.
Ace hoisted himself on the bench seat for a better view. The groom lay sprawled, face down, blood trickling from his wound.

A wave of pity hit Ace as Brenna, her blue eyes wide with terror, brushed frantically at the bloodstains on her dress. Pity shifted to astonishment when she kicked off her high-heeled shoes and fled through a side door.

Ace grabbed his parka and bolted out the front entrance, running smack into Chris Yellowtree.

The boy grabbed Ace’s arm for balance. “Sorry I’m late, Ace. Damn bike wouldn’t start.”

Ace didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The full-blooded Passamaquoddy stood there in the wintry morning, wearing only a loincloth. “Show’s cancelled, Chris. Someone shot the groom.”

His dark eyes widened. “Yeah? Heard a shot as I drove down Main. Figured someone was target shooting or deer hunting, maybe. Not surprised, though. Anson wasn’t well-liked in this town.”

Ace didn’t want to talk about Anson Carter. “Did you see Brenna?”

“Yeah, I think so. Saw a white streak running across Beal’s field. Man, that woman can move.”

Ace relaxed. Brenna, a barefoot bride, was running to the blueberry barrens. He knew exactly where to find her. “Take my advice, Chris. High tail it back to the reservation. All hell’s gonna break loose. Stick around and you’ll end up the prime suspect.”

Chris grinned. “Don’t need to tell me twice.” He charged into the dense bushes next to the church. A motorcycle engine revved to life. The bike shot out of the shrubbery, skidded in the dirt and headed west. Ace grinned. Quite a sight. A half-naked Indian on a motorcycle.

The low rumble of voices from within the church warned Ace that the remaining guests had begun to stir. He took a last look inside. Reverend Marston and Colin knelt on either side of Anson. Any second these people would react to the nightmare they’d witnessed. He wanted to be gone before that happened.

Ace’s long stride brought him to his SUV in record time. The engine purred to life the instant he turned the key, and he gunned it. Five miles down the road, a county ambulance sped by, heading toward the church. “With any luck you’ll be too late,” he muttered.

Two miles later, he turned right and bumped off the pavement into a dirt parking lot. As he exited the vehicle, two blue state troopers’ cars roared down the road, sirens blaring. Big drawback to living in such an isolated part of the state. Often, help didn’t come fast enough.

He cleared the three wooden steps in one stride. A bell jingled above the door when he walked in. A quick visual scan told him that the Coastal Country Store hadn’t changed in the past twelve years. Joe French, the owner, stood behind the counter, as he had most of his life. Ten years older than Ace, Joe hadn’t been part of the crowd that had bullied him in his youth.

One look at the man’s chubby face told Ace he was close to bursting with the need to tell someone about the shooting. “Hey, Joe.”
Joe did a jig in his excitement. “Ace. Heard you were back in town. Didja hear the news?”

Ace sauntered to the aisle where a limited choice of canned goods sat on dusty shelves. Same shelves they’d sat on twelve years ago. “What news is that?” He picked up four cans of tomato soup.

“Somebody up and shot Brenna MacKenzie’s husband.”

Ace glanced up and added a box of crackers and one of dry milk. “Husband? Didn’t know she got hitched.” A six-pack of Coke and his hands were full.

“It just happened. Right after the ‘I do’, someone blasted the guy. Then the filly up and run away with a stranger.”

Ace’s mouth twitched in amusement. He placed the food items on the counter and moved toward the back of the store. God, he loved to watch rumors escalate. And nowhere in the world did they mushroom like in this town. Someday he might write a book about Spruce Harbor.

Joe’s voice followed him. “Always did think Daniel’s girl was a bit wild. Course, you know her better n’ me.” His tone hinted that he’d love to hear Ace’s opinion on the subject.

Ace worked his way to the first aid section. Brenna’s feet would need treatment. “Water under the bridge, Joe. Haven’t seen Brenna since we were kids.” He picked up a box of gauze and blew off the dust. Probably the same box he’d wanted to buy when he was a kid but didn’t have enough money. He grabbed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a box of Epsom salts, some Bag Balm and was ready to hit the road.

Joe peered at Ace over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses as he rang up the items. “Injure yourself, Ace?”

“Not me. One of the kids on the reservation stepped on a nail.” The lie rolled off his tongue with ease.

Joe shook his bald head. “Them rusty nails are nasty business. Make sure the kid gets a tetanus shot.”

Ace reached in the back pocket of his jeans, pulled out a well-worn leather wallet and handed Joe thirty dollars. “Will do.”

“Heard you’re looking for property. Found anything?” Joe asked.

There was no closed season on fishing for information in Spruce Harbor. “Nope.”
Ace grasped the paper bag. Joe yanked it back. “Ya know, Ace. I hope you don’t blame me for what happened in the past.”

He kept his expression blank, holding Joe’s gaze until the man cleared his throat and shifted his attention to the cash register. “Ya know, about the way people treated you when you were a kid. I was older. I probably should have, um, you know, stepped in and put a stop to it.”

Ace leaned over the counter and grabbed the bag. “I believe in leaving the past where it belongs—in the past. Keep the change.”

He strode from the store, pissed at letting Joe’s comment put a burr in his side.
Back in the SUV, he opened a Coke and guzzled half the can. Chewing on Joe’s half-assed apology, he drove two more miles down Route One and turned left onto a narrow, winding, dirt path. He made the numerous turns, surprised they’d stayed in his memory all these years. He frowned, not sure he liked the implication.
He’d come a long way. If only the demons of his youth would stop surfacing. At least he’d learned to contain them. He could even chuckle at his nickname back then. Geronimo. Dumb-assed town. Couldn’t even get their Indian tribes straight. A few had called him Running Bear. Little did they realize he’d always liked that particular taunt. He could outrun anyone in town. Except for, perhaps, Brenna.

Chris had told him not much had changed in Spruce Harbor. Nowadays most people swallowed their bigotry, because it was politically incorrect not to. The thought that anyone in this town actually gave a rat’s ass about political correctness made him want to howl with laughter. What a freakin’ joke.

The younger ones might be more accepting, but his generation and the ones before still hated Indians. He’d bet his last dollar on it. At least the instigator, Daniel MacKenzie, was dead. If someone didn’t step into his shoes, there might be hope for Spruce Harbor yet.

Ace drank in the simple beauty of the landscape as he drove. The low growing blueberry plants, now bright red, gave the barrens a look of the tundra. Even the snowy owls agreed. Hundreds of them soon would arrive from the arctic to spend their winters hunting prey on the almost treeless terrain.

In late summer, the barrens crawled with migrant workers, mostly Indians, although he’d heard that now Mexican’s came to pick, too. Thousands of acres of blueberry fields and hundreds of identical intersecting dirt roads that led nowhere. Without a compass or a topographical map, a person unfamiliar with the barrens could get lost.

Until it was time to pick next August, the fields would remain deserted, except for the early summer months when a multitude of black bears waited patiently for the berries to ripen.

A hunting cabin built by Brenna’s father sat deep in the barrens. That cabin had been her sanctuary years ago, and Ace bet his life that’s where she’d gone today. He grew warm as unwanted memories of times he and Brenna had spent there nudged his mind.

The four-by-four SUV bumped its way across the fields toward its destination. Sure enough, thick gray smoke spiraled from the chimney. He drove into a thicket of alder bushes, wincing as branches scratched the SUV’s doors. Funny how he’d regressed into the past. He’d always hidden his truck back then and automatically did so now.

Bag under one arm, Ace walked to the door. The cabin had been built with only one window, and it wasn’t in the front. Stupid design. Man should be able to see who came knocking at the door. He rapped on the wood and waited fifteen seconds. “Brenna, I know you’re in there. Open the damn door.”

The hinges squeaked as the door swung open, and Ace looked down the cold metal of a shotgun barrel.


Kelly McCrady said...

Congratulations on your EPPIE, Pam!

greenstreetbobby said...

I will look for the book so I can follow Bear's exploits. I like the action and flow.