It's here! Crisis of Serenity is here!
Tess Copeland lives a quiet life in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thanks to the government’s witness protection program, she enjoys the freedom of never having to glance over her shoulder to see if someone is following her. Life has become safe, serene...and boring. Her heart longs for something more than just existing...until a ghost from her past shatters her serenity.
Once upon a time, Tess was stuck between the FBI and the men the feds were trying to take down. Jake Coleman is the U.S. Marshal who extracted her from the jam she was in with the FBI, a man she could have fallen for...hard...if she had let herself. It’s been a year since she last saw Jake, and in all the months that have passed, he’s never tried to find her. The longer he keeps his distance, the more she wonders why his absence hurts so much.
When a stranger comes to town searching for her, all of Tess’ old fears are resurrected. Asking Jake for help with her current crisis might lure him into a dangerous trap involving murder, kidnapping, and revenge. When Jake and Tess come face-to-face with the past, they will have to use all their wits to survive.
If you'd like a sneak peek....
It was seven a.m. and Sadie’s Pancake Kitchen had just hit its peak occupancy. Morning rush was prime time, but the pace never slowed from the time the restaurant opened to the time the last customer waddled out the door at night. Sadie’s served breakfast all day, every day.
As soon as I walked in the door around six, Wendy, the hostess, didn’t waste any time assigning me a section on the top floor. She did it on purpose because I had once complained about the trip up and down the stairs. When I worked the top, I had to climb those stinking stairs fifteen jillion times a shift. The owner, whose name was Helen, not Sadie, kept telling us she was going to install an upstairs kitchen or a food service elevator. Yeah, right. Wendy told me to suck it up and do my job, as if she were my boss. I called her Princess behind her back one day and the rest of the wait staff picked up the nickname. The nasty wench obviously held a grudge.
After I cleaned the coffee maker and set a fresh pot to brew, I wrapped my apron around my waist and stuck a pencil behind my ear. Once I entered the dining room, routine set in. What do you want to drink? What will you have today? Can I refresh your coffee? Is there anything else I can get you? Slap the check on the table.
I’d never been a waitress before, but I found I wasn’t half bad at waiting tables. Sadie’s wasn’t the best job I’d ever had, at least not since the feds decided my life would be so much better if I was placed in their questionable witness protection program, but the steady paycheck served my purpose. The waitressing gig kept my wallet fed. No extras. Just subsistence. That’s all I asked. All I needed. Anything more might bring unwanted attention to my existence. After all, the FBI wanted certain individuals to think I had disappeared from the face of the planet so the bad guys would stop searching for me. Because I had dared to testify against Bennie the Goon in federal court, something that didn’t nsure a long life, I had to cooperate with the feds. I liked living and I liked living on the outside. I don’t do well in prison.
Life in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, had settled into a comfortable pattern. Get up at five. Take my niece to daycare. Bum a ride to work. Roll silverware. Brew coffee. Clean teapots. Wait tables until my shift was over at three. Catch the trolley. Pick up my niece from daycare. Go home. Feed the kid. Stuff a few bites of food into my mouth. Soak my feet. Put Joyce to bed. Watch TV. Pass out. Rinse and repeat.
Some of the patrons at Sadie’s were tourists, but quite a few locals breakfasted there several times a week, some every morning. After a few months, faces, and then names had blended into my daily grind. The monotony of the ordinary promised me safety and few surprises. For the first time in years, I wasn’t looking over my shoulder every second and wondering who was stalking me. The sameness of my days appealed to me, better than the life I’d led after I escaped from the Illinois corrections system and the Fugitive Task Force began looking for me. There was never a dull moment as a fugitive. By the time I came out of hiding, the FBI had taken an interest in my case and coerced me into rolling on Bennie. That’s when the feds immersed me in the witness protection system.
I sighed, set Jim Owens’ cup in front of him, and poured coffee from the fresh pot I’d just made. He smiled at me, revealing a perfectly straight set of ultra-white teeth. He had one of those symmetrical faces that cameras love. Why was the guy a cop instead of a movie star? For the first time since I met him, I smiled back. Just because I felt like it.
After a year of living—no, more like hiding out—in Gatlinburg, my stomach had stopped churning every time a member of law enforcement spoke to me. Sadie’s was a popular cop hangout early in the morning. If I had known, I would have taken the job at the souvenir store down the street, despite the fact the owner of that fine establishment couldn’t keep his eyes off my assets. Where his eyes roamed, his hands were likely to soon follow. I didn’t need that grief.
The ticket booth position my handler had obtained for me at Zombiemania when I first arrived in Gatlinburg went away when the attraction went out of business. After that, I found employment on my own. I figured I could do a better job hunt than the federal agent that couldn’t care less if I survived or not.
So I was settled in Tennessee, at least for a while. I gulped down my distrust every single day and served Gatlinburg’s finest their breakfast, even though I had certainly had my fill of cops. This particular patrol officer seemed nice, but I swore I’d never trust a cop again. Ever.
“Thanks.” Jim flashed his gorgeous smile. “How are you today, Tess?” His eyes gleamed with expectation.
“Good. You want the usual?” I asked him the same question every Friday at seven a.m. He always sat at his favorite table. The one that offered the best view of Parkway. Jim was predictable. I liked that in a man. My ex-boyfriend Trevor was anything but.
“Hmmm. Let’s see… Yeah.” His order never varied. Four buttermilk pancakes. Four crispy pieces of bacon. Two eggs—over easy.
A shiver of dread snaked along my backbone. My head snapped up and I peered through the window. A thin ribbon of sidewalk separated the two-story-high plate glass from the roadway. The clink of silverware and restaurant grade china clattered against the background noise of cars stopping and starting. I wiped my bangs from my eyes and studied the flow of traffic on the street below. Two lines crept bumper-to-bumper in view of the restaurant, a small percentage of cars making it through the green light in one cycle. Stoplight #6 was always busy. A patrol unit had stopped at the signal. The officer turned his head my way. Our eyes met and held, and then my heart skipped a few beats. What was he doing here in Gatlinburg? I thought I had left him behind in Colorado.
Nothing on earth could have dragged me away from his stare. Life as I knew it had changed, and my monotonous existence didn’t feel so safe anymore. The uncontrollable urge to escape overtook me…again. I had always been good at running.
“I was thinking…” Jim’s voice drifted in and out of my consciousness.
“Tess, are you all right? You went pale all of a sudden.”
“I’m okay.” I turned my attention back to him. “I’ll put your order in.”
I left before he could hint that he wanted to take me out. He was predictable about that as well. Today wasn’t a good day. There might never be a good time—not with a ghost from my past invading my newly acquired contentment.
The late afternoon sun warmed my face as I trudged down the street toward the trolley stop. The atmosphere held the pleasant promise of fall and color. I arrived in Tennessee last year just as the trees were turning gold, crimson, orange, and yellow, a gorgeous autumn. I hadn’t yet had the chance to indulge in a trip into the mountains, something I longed to do, but I didn’t own a car. That’s why I had to bum a ride to work every morning. The trolley didn’t start running until eight, sometimes ten, depending on what time of year it was.
Autumn had turned to a hard winter last year. The necessities of settling into a new life had consumed my waking moments until the first hard freeze. The ground had frozen and so had my heart. That’s when my thoughts had turned toward Trevor again. Snowbound landscapes always reminded me of him. His memory heated my core, and I wished with all my heart he hadn’t left me cold.
I missed him, missed him like crazy. As good as I was at running, he was even better at leaving. The last time was more than I could take, and I’d asked my handler to move me out of Arizona. No, more like begged him to send me somewhere else—anywhere Trevor would have a hard time finding me.
We were no good for each other.
I’d had too many men in my life tell me they cared only to take what they wanted and then leave me with nothing but loneliness and pain. My relationship with Trevor had developed so fast, and I had assumed he was no different than any other man.
I was wrong.
He was different, but his differences were not enough to keep him by my side when he had the urge to indulge in adventure wherever he could find it. He was a private investigator, a bounty hunter, and a solver of mysteries, and he couldn’t be tied to one spot too long. When I first went into witness protection, he stayed three months with me in Tucson and then one night he left without saying goodbye. I ranted and raved, then settled down into being a single, pseudo-mother for Joyce, my sister’s child. When Trevor had showed up at my front door four months later, I let him in, hoping he was back to stay.
I was wrong again.
I pulled my mind back to the present. With the advent of spring, my heart had thawed a bit. Then right before tourist season kicked in, I took the job at Sadie’s. Summer kept me hopping from one Hiker’s Breakfast Plate to the next with no time to dwell on what pained me. Autumn had made an appearance after the last cold snap. My favorite season. This year, the expectation of crisp days and cold nights failed to cheer me. All the vibrancy drained from me when I recalled the police officer at the stoplight and the icy cold stare as his eyes met mine across the roadway.
What was Iverson doing here? How had he gotten another job in law enforcement?
I glanced over my shoulder. No one trailed me down the street. At least, I didn’t think so. Was that man staring at me? Did that car slow as it passed? Was there a hint of malice in the air?
Finally I arrived at my stop just as the trolley pulled to the curb and its sliding doors swished open. I settled into a seat and let my heavy bag slide down my forelegs to the floor in front of me. The ride jarred every one of my tired bones.
My mind drifted to that awful day, the day I tried to escape, even in my dreams, the day Anya had fallen dead at my doorstep. Iverson had been the county investigator assigned to investigate her death. Such irony. Iverson was involved up to his eyeballs in her murder. I knew it. He knew it. But the criminal justice system had failed again and released him due to insufficient evidence. It galled me that a sworn officer of the law was getting by with murder. It scared the crap out of me that he had found me in Gatlinburg.
A woman jostled my elbow as she parked her rather large behind next to me. The slight brush of her shoulder on mine sent shivers of anxiety throughout my body. My heart rate accelerated. My breathing hitched. I flinched and scooted a fraction of an inch away from her.
Memories clawed at my consciousness. I couldn’t eject the vision of death from my mind. Anya had reached out a hand to me and tried to tell me something she must have thought was important. I had failed to save her life, a life that had drained away at my feet.
Trevor came into my house through the back door that night. He was always coming in through the back door. Well, actually, he came in through the window that night because the back door was stuck shut.
My eyelids drooped. Trevor’s dark stare filled my inner vision. His smirk. His swagger. The cocky tip of his black cowboy hat as he shoved it back from his forehead. The way his arms wrapped around me, strong, sure, and comforting. His smell, the essence of virility. A familiar ache swelled somewhere beneath my ribcage. My heart was acting up again. I couldn’t allow sentimentality to drag my emotions toward his easy come and go love. Yeah, he said he loved me, but did he really know what that meant? I had to get mad again. That wasn’t a hard thing to do when I recalled why he left the last time.
My head jerked and my eyes popped open. I had almost missed my stop. I scrambled over the woman sitting next to me and exited the trolley.
The trek up the hill to Joyce’s daycare center took forever. My head swam, my feet ached, and my eyes blurred. I wiped away tears with the back of my hand. Had Iverson already known I was in Gatlinburg when he took the job with the local police department? How could I defend Joyce and myself from him if he had sworn to serve and protect? Who would believe me if I called him out? If I revealed my identity, I’d be forced to move again. Packing was getting old. More than anything, I wanted to settle somewhere and live my life instead of running from my past.
I had the good fortune to get Joyce into a center across the road from my apartment complex. My mind churned as I checked Joyce out for the day and propped her on my right hip. My bones creaked as a pain shot through my pelvis. I still hadn’t fully recuperated from the beating Bennie’s henchman had given me, probably never would be free from pain again. Bennie was the problem I ran away from in Illinois. Iverson was the new problem I had acquired in Colorado. Witness protection was supposed to eliminate both those threats, but the program hadn’t worked its magic for me.
My stomach contracted in a spasm of anxiety. Iverson knew where I worked. It wouldn’t take much digging to figure out where I lived. When would he show up at my front door? Would he break into my apartment and hide out there, laying in wait for me like the criminal that he was? He should have never been released from custody. The Colorado cops should have held him until they found all the evidence they needed. Surely they could have arraigned him on some trumped up charge. He had blood all over his hands—maybe not literally but figuratively.
By the time I dodged traffic crossing the street, trudged across the parking lot, and inserted the key into the lock of my apartment door, I was convinced Iverson had found out where I lived and he’d pounce on me as soon as I entered. I slammed the door open and put my hand on Joyce’s head to protect her from whatever was about to happen, but nothing had disturbed the apartment’s serenity since I left early that morning. Even my neighbor’s usual bass-heavy music didn’t penetrate the thin walls.
Joyce tugged at my ear. “Hungy,” she whined.
“Shhh, sweetie. I’ll fix you something in a minute. Aunt Tess has to change her clothes and get out of these shoes.” I sighed. “Actually, Aunt Tess needs… I need to sit down for a minute.” The tension coiling in the back of my head made me dizzy.
I dropped my bag on the small dinette table, sat Joyce in her high chair, plopped onto the worn sofa, and put my head in my hands. My life seemed so pathetic—me and my sister’s child, squashed together into one room and a bath with a worn dinette set, a ramshackle portable crib, a used hide-a-bed, and a 19” TV. The furnace rumbled as if to punctuate the dismal nature of our pitiful existence.
The phone rang, shattering my pity party into a billion pieces. I counted my pennies, so I wasn’t able to hide behind the shelter of Caller ID. Even that little extra would have made a dent in my limited disposable income. I wanted to yell at the anonymous caller. No, my car warranty hadn’t expired. I had no car. No, I didn’t have $6,000 of credit card debt. I had no credit card. And no, I didn’t want to contribute to a worthy cause. I needed charity—although I would never accept it. Since I had sworn off ever running a con again, I swallowed my pride and enrolled Joyce in the WIC program, but I refused to take anything from anybody for myself.
I let the blasted beast ring. There was nothing I wanted from anyone, except to be left alone.
My hand groped around the back reaches of the top shelf of the closet and latched onto a more certain means of security than witness protection. The texture of the gun’s grip should have felt like cold comfort, but it didn’t. I wasn’t supposed to own one. It was part of my immunity deal with the feds. They didn’t know me. They didn’t live my life. The day after I moved to Gatlinburg, I bought the gun anyway. Iverson’s presence in Gatlinburg meant I needed to start carrying it with me wherever I went.