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Authors: Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Reluctant Runaway

BOOK: Reluctant Runaway
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Praise for
Jill Elizabeth Nelson’s Novels

“The unique plot, a strong heroine, and the fresh voice makes
Reluctant Runaway
a can’t-put-down read … Jill Elizabeth Nelson is an author to watch in the realm of Romantic Suspense!”

S
USAN
M
AY
W
ARREN
,
award-winning author of
In Sheep’s Clothing

“If you love feisty heroines and heroes with heart, you’ll love
Reluctant Runaway
as much as I did. For suspense and romance and fun,
Runaway
is hard to beat. Highly recommended!”

G
AYLE
R
OPER
, award-winning author
of Allah’s
Fire
and
See No Evil

“Nonstop action … danger … and a romance with the tension of a walk on a high wire. You’re in for a wild roller coaster ride with this story!”

L
ORENA
M
C
C
OURTNEY
,
author of the Ivy Malone Mystery series

“Newcomer Jill Elizabeth Nelson has crafted a fast-paced, captivating tale peopled by characters you not only care about, but would love to have in your circle of friends. (Especially on those days when crazed international assassins and art thieves come knocking on your door!)
Reluctant Burglar
is a wonderful read!”

K
AREN
B
ALL
, bestselling author of
Kaleidoscope Eyes

“Reluctant Burglar
is a hands-down, thumbs-up winner. Jill Elizabeth Nelson packs her story with all the suspense and mystery a reader could want. The added bonus: two strong characters reluctant to fall in love.”

D
ONITA
K. P
AUL
, award-winning author
of romance and fantasy

“Nelson’s debut is fantastic! Suspense, romance, and humor blend together to provide exquisite entertainment. The sophisticated plot takes readers into the intriguing world of high-end art, and highly relevant issues of God’s control versus our control are addressed as an integral part of the story.”

R
OMANTIC
T
IMES
B
OOKCLUB

“Reluctant Burglar
offers a unique blend of whodunit mystery and high-stakes thriller with a touch of humor and romance.”

S
HARON
D
UNN
, award-winning author
of
Death of a Garage Sale Newbie

“Take one beautiful reluctant burglar and add: one eye-sizzling
FBI
agent, an international terrorist, riveting suspense, delicious romance, trials of faith, and then buckle your seat belt for a wild, heart-pulsating read. Jill Elizabeth Nelson’s debut novel will leave you breathless!”

L
INDA
W
ICHMAN
, award-winning author of
Legend of the Emerald Rose

“A page-turner with likable, spunky characters whose faith makes a difference in their lives, serious villains, and lots of plot twists that keep the reader guessing until those last few pages. I liked Desiree and Tony and can’t wait for the sequel.”

A
UTHOR’S
C
HOICE
I
NTERVIEWS

To all the runaways out there.
Please come home. The porch light’s on,
and the door’s always open at God’s house.

Acknowledgments

N
o author is an island. It takes a community to make a book. This one is no exception. Many thanks go out to my supportive family and friends who took my occasional neglect of them in stride and cheered me on as I hunched over my laptop, engrossed in Desi and Tony’s world. Of course my faithful critique buddies get kudos. What would I do without you, Linda Wichman, Donita K. Paul, Sharon Hinck, and Virginia Smith? You bless my world! Humble gratitude to Brian Kendig, Buddy McLemore, and Chris Wilson for offering their expertise in computer security to an inquisitive writer—and to my police procedure expert, Madison Police Chief Stan Ross. Any errors are mine, not theirs. Much appreciation to the friendly citizens of Albuquerque for welcoming me during my visit to their beautiful and fascinating community. And thank you, thank you, thank you to Julee Schwarzburg and Karen Ball, a pair of the finest editors on the planet. You illuminated my path and set my feet on solid ground. To all the kind and dedicated staff at Multnomah, I consider myself privileged to work with you. And thanks be to my Lord Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of my faith—and my dream to become a published novelist.

Author’s Note

W
hile I am aware that security companies do not normally make a business practice of staging thefts, it is a possible scenario and makes for fun fiction. The Tate Art Gallery of Washington DC is fictitious. The New Mexico Museum of Art and Anthropology is a composite of what is available in charming Albuquerque, but the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is an actual place in Santa Fe. The O’Keeffe painting that draws Desi’s attention is fictional—don’t look for it anywhere. Cannibalism among the ancient Anasazi is a debated possibility For an excellent article on the controversy, see
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/06/0601_wireanasazi.html
.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world
.

1 J
OHN
4:2–4

Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist
.

2 J
OHN
1:7

Prologue  

T
he young mother bent over the crib rail, and her tear fell onto her sleeping son’s cheek. The scents of formula, baby powder, and newborn filled her nostrils. Pain seared her heart.

She straightened and stared down at the child. Her tiny son whiffled a sigh. The sound spoke of contentment. Of trust.

A sob broke from the mother’s throat.

I can’t do this to my baby My husband. I can’t.

You must!

The woman jerked a step back from the crib. Of course, she must.

But they’ll never understand
, she whined to that dark, driving voice within.

No answer. Just the dull dread that had clouded her days for so long that she couldn’t remember when she was last happy. Free.

Free? Who was ever free?

She thought she’d found a miracle—a new beginning. But she’d messed up again, and now she had to fix the problem.

Her hands fisted, nails chewing her palms. She took one more look at her sleeping child and absorbed the sight into the deepest part of her being. A cry rose in her throat, but she stifled the sound. Feeling sorry for herself had never earned her better than a kick when she was down. Well, this time she wouldn’t stay down.

And people would pay.

The woman left the room and strode up the hallway into the tiny foyer. From an entry table, she picked up her scuffed purse and hugged it close. The hard lump inside the bag pressed into her stomach. Her pulse fluttered. How far was she willing to go to take what she needed? She’d never done anything like this before. She set the purse down and stared at it as if the bag harbored a tarantula.

Swallowing a lump, she opened the door and stepped out onto the weed-tufted lawn. The Albuquerque sunshine touched her skin, but she felt no warmth. The dry breeze carried the scent of chilies cooking in neighbors’ houses. A dear, ordinary world.

A place she didn’t belong anymore.

Several blocks down, a lone car turned onto the quiet street. The breath snagged in the woman’s lungs. She knew that vehicle.

Fighting fear, the woman staggered back inside and reached for her weapon.

One
 

S
eptember night pressed in on Desiree Jacobs like an urgent warning. She shrugged the unease away. Flexing rubber-soled feet, she fixed her gaze on the brick wall half a dozen yards ahead. Under her Mylar jumpsuit, sweat trickled down her ribs.

E-e-easy. This little jaunt was no different than a trip across the balance beam at the gym, a move she’d practiced for twenty-two of her thirty years. Except no thick mat waited a few feet away to soften a fall. Only ten stories of empty air. A single misstep off the steel girder and she’d make a nice Impressionist splat on the pavement of the alley below.

Then Max can attend
another
funeral.

Desi sighed.
All right, girlfriend, you
win.
Bungee cord it
is. She took a step backward onto the roof behind her. Amazing how easy it had been to get into this co-op apartment building next to the exclusive Tate Art Gallery of Washington DC. Delivering pizzas opened doors fast. Must be the hypnotic smell of sausage and pepperoni.

Desi knelt beside her discarded delivery uniform. She stripped off her backpack, then pulled out the bungee cord and clipped an end to the harness around her torso. The other end went around a pipe sticking out of the roof.

Lifting her arms, Desi stepped back onto the beam. Just
try
to keep her away from that American artist collection. She took a step, then one more, toes outward, heel to instep.
And this step
is for the Cassatt
. She moved forward.
And this one for the Savage. And this one for Grandma Moses
. She hopped and switched foot positions.
Expect me soon, Andy Warhol
.

At midbeam she stopped and looked up at the sky. One plump star winked at her. If Tony could see her, he’d have a cow. She winked back at the star. What an overprotective FBI agent boyfriend didn’t know couldn’t hurt him.

Desi adjusted the backpack straps around her shoulders. She quick-stepped forward, one step back, then a trio of toe-steps forward. And those were for the three Georgia O’Keeffe’s. I’m
coming, darlings
.

The tenth-story ledge of the Tate Gallery building loomed close. She smelled the brick cooling from the heat of the Indian summer day.

Almost there. Almost …
Yesss!

Her breath came strong and even. She knelt on the two-foot ledge and glanced back at the wide-open space she’d conquered. The girder formed the only remaining connection between buildings that once shared a roof support system. A handy choice of approach under cover of night.

She shrugged out of her pack and unhooked the bungee cord. Good riddance.

By feel, Desi located her narrow-beam flashlight and trained the glow on the window in front of her. The pane was an unimpressive standard thickness, and the wood frame showed weather wear. Desi kneaded gloved fingers together.

Where were the booby traps?

Her gaze stopped on a slim white sensor strip across the inside of the sash. Even a trained eye could miss that one. Any tampering with the frame, and alarms would shriek loud enough to startle a poor unsuspecting burglar right off the ledge.

Desi gulped and peered downward. The ground was there,
in the blank darkness, hard and unforgiving. Cold sparks skittered up her spine.

She stiffened her jaw. No way was that a premonition. She pursed her lips at the window. What about cutting the pane? Nope. A web of hair-fine wire covered the glass, not obstructing the view of the drab roof opposite, but any slice would end in handcuffs for the window surgeon. Nuh-uh! She didn’t need
those
bracelets.

Time to find another way in. And in a hurry Tony would snort and paw if she wasn’t ready on time for the White House Midnight Masquerade. Besides, she couldn’t afford to give him explanations.

Rising, she hefted the pack in her right hand and pressed the left side of her body against the building. She swept the flashlight beam ahead of her on the ledge. All clear. She lifted her foot and then halted midmotion. Indrawn breath hissed between her teeth.

Idiot!

Planting her foot back where it started, she panned the light up the wall. Sure enough. Stubby plastic-coated sensor rods stuck out from the brick at irregular intervals—no slipping around, between, or under these babies. A broken rod or an attempt to remove one from its socket released an ultrasonic frequency that tripped an alarm, and voilà, one bagged burglar.

So where did that leave her? She frowned. With a sackful of goodies and no place to go, except …

She looked down and smiled.

Chuckling, Desi set a grappling hook in the chink between the ledge and the window and then clipped the end of the rope to her torso harness. Lying on her stomach, she turned and flipped her feet into open space. She balanced on the rim of the ledge, abdomen muscles and extended arms bearing her weight
as if she were about to start a routine on the uneven bars. The bottoms of her feet sought and found the wall below.

Blood pumping, she pushed away from the ledge. The tether flowed with steady friction through her gloved fists. Piece of cake. Just a few smooth hops and—

Cra-a-ack!

Desi’s line jerked. Bits of debris bounced off her head and shoulders. Her feet lost purchase. In free swing, her body rammed the wall, spurting a grunt from her throat. Pain shot through her shoulders and hips. She dug her fingers and toes into the chinks between the bricks and went still—except for her heart, which threatened to backflip right out of her chest.

Below, muted smacks taunted her ears—cement chunks bursting against pavement. Her imagination went into overdrive, picturing the landing should her body take a similar dive.

Stop it! Think. You can beat this
.

A portion of the ledge above had given way. The stress of the hook and her weight must have been too much for the aged cement. Thank goodness the ledge hadn’t crumbled beneath her while she knelt by the window.

Now, any wrong movement …

She sucked in a breath. She needed a better hold on the brick. Reluctant to disturb so much as an air molecule, she slid a finger over … another … another.
Oops!

A toe slipped. Her weight shifted. She jammed the foot back in tight, gritting her teeth against a yelp. Her big toe had felt better after a collision with the bedpost in the dark.

Snap! Scra-a-a-ape …

The tether line went limp. Desi held her breath.

The grappling hook remained aloft, but the sounds from above indicated that it must have pulled free and now rested, without anchor, on what was left of the crumbling ledge. If the
hook plunged downward, the weight would pull Desi from her precarious hold on the brick.

Great! Where’s an angel when you need one?

Rotten cement on the ledges hadn’t figured into her calculations. That was the two-edged sword when owners insisted on locating art galleries in charming but antiquated facilities, which left them vulnerable to intruders but created unintended death traps for thieves.

Trust
.

Okay, that thought hadn’t come from
her
mind, but it was right. Time to stop relying on her own resources. Hadn’t the past months taught her a thing?

All right, I’m busted, Lord. Again. What’s our next move?

No angelic chorus answered her plea with divine instructions. Desi sighed. Her breath fanned the brick in shaky drafts. Her cheek stung, pressed against the rough surface. Her fingers started to cramp, and her leg muscles ached. She couldn’t hang on much longer.

Should she try to climb up toward a ledge that she knew was brittle and crumbling or risk moving down toward the lip at the next floor, its condition an unknown quantity? The latter option could pull the grappling hook off the ledge above before she reached the doubtful security of the next level, and she’d join the smashed pieces on the ground.

Let go
.

Of all the kooky ideas … Wait … maybe …

Desi licked her lips, mouth as dry as the cement flakes that powdered her shoulder.

All right, what if she let go and performed a calculated fall onto the next ledge? She would need to hit leaning into the building. The impact might breach the cement if its condition was as unstable as the ledge above. Then again, the lip
might hold her, and she’d be in a firm position when—not if—the grappling hook tumbled from above. Was the lower ledge strong enough to withstand the impact of her falling body? God knew.

Okay, Lord, I have to trust Your wisdom. Here goes!

Desi released her hold and left her stomach behind. Terror clawed up her throat and came out in a strangled gurgle.

The impact shuddered through her bones. She folded her knees forward, throwing her body sideways. Air woofed from her lungs. Cement fragments pelted her from overhead just as the grappling hook plummeted toward her then past into the darkness. Her harness jerked, tugging her toward the edge of her perch. She came to a halt with one shoulder hovering over thin air.

Clink …
clink … clink … clink … clink …

The sound of the metal hook bouncing off the building ticked off seconds. Desi’s brain fought to regain focus.
Thank You, Abba Father!
She lay where she had landed and enjoyed each breath. A giddy laugh bubbled from her throat.

Next move? Get her scraped and sore self inside, alarm or no alarm. Well, better
without
the alarm. Now that she’d risked this much, she ought to taste the victory, even if she
was
starring in this little caper as a bad guy who ought to lose.

Desi sat up. A few feet away a window beckoned, and really, she couldn’t have fallen more than a few feet. Things often weren’t as terrible as they looked. Then again, sometimes they were worse—like with Max’s situation.

Max’s husband, Dean Webb, was cooling his heels in jail while his two small children were left bewildered by their daddy’s sudden disappearance from their lives. How would Max ever be able to help them understand what their father had done for greed?

Fury clotted in Desi’s stomach. Too bad they quit clapping criminals into public stocks. Give her a dump truck full of rotten
vegetables to fling and—

Whoa! She’d promised herself and God to work on her forgiveness skills.

Better concentrate on encouraging Max. Maybe she should let her best friend and treasured employee win this one.

Yeah. Right. Lip curled, Desi imitated Maxine Webb’s West Texas drawl. “In a pig’s eye!”

Her flame-haired friend would skin her alive with a dull knife if she suspected that Desi hadn’t done her best to beat Max’s precautions. They had an internal audit on their work. If Desi could navigate through the safeguards the same way a thief would—no cheating—they’d keep working on the plan until it was Desi-proof. No exceptions. Their bread and butter came from keeping HJ Securities Company the best in the business of art and antiquities protection.

Of course, the timing for this caper could have been better. If the gallery hadn’t insisted on moving their grand opening up to the day after tomorrow, she wouldn’t be stuck on a crumbling ledge on the same night she was due at a White House party.

Desi climbed to her knees, pulled the grappling hook up, and secured it in her pack. Scoping out the window, she found it booby trap-free. She dug out her cutting tool and made a neat hole in the glass. A specialty hook probed inside, and the interior lock clicked open.

The slither between lintel and sash tested every scrape and bruise on her body, but at last Desi stood on cushy carpet inside some executive’s office. She took a few steps on wobbly knees, nerves still doing the boogie-woogie. A fat leather office chair beckoned. She collapsed into it, leaned back, and perched her feet on the desk. Her right big toe throbbed.

Small price to pay.

She dug a water bottle out of the pack on her lap and took
a long pull. As she lowered the bottle, her gaze met the lighted face of the desk clock. Her feet thumped to the floor. Scrambling through her bag of tricks, she found her walkie-talkie.

“Max, do you read me? I’m in, and I’m in a hurry.”

The instrument crackled. “You’re in where? In trouble? That I can believe.” Male hoots sounded in the background. “You have a little more than an hour to get ready for that society shindig with Tony. Now tell me where you’re stuck, and I’ll send the cavalry after you.”

More background guffaws.

Wouldn’t the night guards love to brag to their buddies about how they rescued the high-toned security woman from a pickle? Well, not tonight, boys. “I’m sitting in a ninth-floor office, looking at the clock.”

“Get outta here! No
way
you breached that window security.”

“Way! But take heart, no one else will be loony enough to follow in my footsteps.”

“Do I even want to know?”

Desi laughed. “I’ll explain later. Right now, I do have to get outta here pronto. Tomorrow night we can pick up where we left off, and you’ll have your chance to nab me in the gallery showrooms.”

BOOK: Reluctant Runaway
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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