Authors: Lenora Worth
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance: Modern, #General, #Romance, #Fiction, #Fiction - Romance, #Romance - General, #Suspense, #Christian, #Religious - General, #Christian - Romance, #Religious, #Deception, #Christian - Suspense, #Christian fiction, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #Clergy, #Espionage
Published by Steeple Hill Books™
To Merline Lovelace and the participants
of her workshop Four Steps to Perfect Plots
at the 2006 Written In The Stars NOLA STARS
(North Louisiana Storytellers and Authors)
conference. Thanks to all of you for
giving me this story idea!
And special thanks and acknowledgment to
paratroop and skydiving instructor Jim Bates at
aero.com for his help on how to “let go of a plane.”
Any mistakes were my own!
omeone was going to have to explain about the dead body in the bathtub.
. That thought kept running through Lydia Cantrell’s head as she looked from the grotesque body of a wide-eyed dead man wearing a bloody suit to the shock-filled stare of the surprised and
man standing in front of her.
Then her practical mind went into overdrive. She would probably have to explain how she’d wound up in Pastor Dev’s hotel room late at night, only to find him wearing a bright red action figure T-shirt and old, faded jeans, while staring at the body in the tub, his expression filled with shock and something else Lydia couldn’t quite figure out, something that looked like anger and resolve. Since she’d never seen Pastor Dev angry, she couldn’t grasp what was happening or the strange look she saw in his deep blue eyes.
And she certainly couldn’t grasp his attire. Lydia rarely saw Pastor Devon Malone dressed in anything other than a nice suit and interesting tie, so she was a bit taken aback, seeing him in jeans and a T-shirt and realizing that the man was built like a regular weight lifter and football jock all rolled into one mighty good-looking package. That, and the body in the tub, really set Lydia into a tizzy.
come here for a reason. A very legitimate reason. They were supposed to go over Pastor Dev’s notes for his speech the next day. They were attending a statewide religious conference in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s why Lydia was in his hotel room tonight—to help him go over his notes and make sure his speech was tip-top.
Pastor Dev was funny that way. He was thorough and very detail-oriented. He liked to do things the right way. Some implied he was a perfectionist, but Lydia called that just plain hardworking and dedicated. That’s why the man was such a good minister. His speech, entitled “Pastoral—Finding Inner Peace in a Troubled World” would, of course, be excellent. Everything about Pastor Dev was excellent, in Lydia’s mind, at least. Which was why she refused to believe there was a dead man in the room, or that Pastor Dev had anything whatsoever to do with it.
Closing her eyes to the image of the dead man, Lydia thought about how people would react to a young, impressionable girl of twenty-five visiting a single man’s hotel room late at night, but she kept telling herself this was all beyond reproach—if you didn’t count murder, of course. This was Pastor Dev after all. Even the church matrons who’d ridden the bus up to Atlanta with them had given this meeting their blessings. Because they knew Lydia and the pastor had work to do—God’s work. And because Pastor Dev was always a perfect gentleman. Everyone knew that.
And there had been a chaperone present—Pastor Dev’s roommate. Except his roommate and mentor, Pastor Charles Pierson from Savannah, was in no shape to chaperone, since he was the dead man in the bathtub.
Lydia thought about all the people who had put their trust in Pastor Dev and her. This certainly wouldn’t sit well with the church members back home in Dixon, Georgia. It was where Pastor Dev preached and Lydia worked as his secretary ever since she’d come back with a business degree from the University of Georgia.
And she’d worked hard to get the job at the First Church of Dixon, because she had decided instead of building a career in some big company with stock options and a great 401K plan, she wanted to work for Pastor Dev. She’d fallen in love with him one Christmas during her senior year at UGA, when she’d met him at her parents’ annual Christmas Eve open house. He was the new preacher, single and just a few years older than Lydia. And he was so good and sweet and kind, she knew immediately that he was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
Only, he still didn’t know that. Because, though Lydia made goo-goo eyes at him all the time and twirled her long, dark blond hair each time he came to stand by her desk back in the church office, he’d never once noticed a thing about her or her feelings. He was always too preoccupied with taking care of church members—he was so very dedicated that way.
Lydia felt safe with Pastor Dev. He was such a mild-mannered, quiet man, and she just knew she was perfectly safe with him even now, with that horrible body staring up at them.
But she had to admit things looked mighty suspicious with Pastor Dev standing there all shocked and surprised and looking from the body back to her with a kind of dread.
Finally, Lydia managed to speak. “I know you didn’t kill that man, Pastor Dev. Please tell me you didn’t kill your roommate?”
“Of course I didn’t do this, Lydia,” he replied, a soft plea in his words. Then he just stared at the body, that strange look on his face.
While she waited for an explanation, Lydia reminded herself that Pastor Dev was so quiet and focused, so kind and polite, so good and solid, that he could never lift a hand in brutality or violence toward another human being. The man was a walking example of what being a true Christian was all about. Period. End of discussion.
So, Lydia asked another question. “If you didn’t kill your friend, then who did?”
Devon Malone heard the doubt in Lydia’s appeal. And because he couldn’t explain things, he repeated his words. “Lydia, I didn’t do this. You have to believe me.”
Lydia Cantrell, of the South Georgia we pioneers-settled-this-town-with-wagons-and-mules Cantrells, apparently wanted to believe him. She bobbed her head. “I do believe you. I do, Pastor Dev. But—”
He grabbed her by the hand, hauling her into the room as he shut the door. Which really threw him and her both, since he had never tried to touch her, not even so much as touch a strand of her hair or press his fingers along her arm as he opened a door for her. He’d always followed proper decorum when it came to his relationship with Lydia. But now, he had her by the arm, tugging her along with him as he grabbed equipment and weapons out of a steel briefcase. A briefcase he’d hoped never to use again.
Lydia looked at him in surprise. “What’s with all those fancy gadgets?” When he didn’t respond, she said, “You don’t even carry a cell phone like most normal human beings.”
It was true. He rarely bothered to use the computer they’d had installed two years ago at the church office. He mostly devoted his time to reading the Word, and taking care of members’ needs and visitation. Dev was a stickler about visitation—always going out amongst his flock, sharing their good and bad times. Graduations—even from kindergarten—weddings, births, medical emergencies, cataract surgeries, deaths, anniversaries, christenings, baseball games, soccer matches, birthdays and retirements. You name it, Pastor Dev was there to celebrate it. The rest of the time, he worked on preaching the word of the Lord. And while he preached and tried to forget the past, Lydia sat in her same pew each and every Sunday, as devoted as ever. She was like a guiding light out in the congregation. A guiding light he refused to lose, ever. And now, she’d been exposed to the ugly side of his life. The secret life. This could get very messy, very fast.
As Lydia watched Pastor Dev gather strange little gadgets involving beepers and bullets, they heard a commotion at the hotel room door.
“Don’t open it,” he said, his fingers working at loading weapons and clicking against a slick cell phone. His whole expression had changed. He looked dangerous.
Lydia watched, awe and fear overcoming her. “What’s going on?”
He grabbed her again. “Lydia, do you trust me?”
She didn’t even have to think about that. “Of course, I do, Pastor Dev.”
“Then you need to listen to me and follow my instructions, do you understand?”
She bobbed her head. “Yes. But—”
He hushed her with a finger to his lips. “No questions now. No time to explain. We have to get out of here.”
“I have to take you with me. They must be watching. They probably saw you come into the room. You’re in danger.”
Lydia was completely baffled now. Why was she in danger and where was he taking her? And why on earth was Pastor Dev talking to her in that
kind of voice, so intense and husky and brusque, so very different from his regular soft-spoken drawl?
“What’s happening?” she managed to squeak out, even as they heard the banging on the door again. “Is this some sort of joke? I know how you and your buddies like to pull jokes on each other.”
“No joke, Lydia,” Pastor Dev said, guiding her to the adjoining room. And he now had a big gun in his hand. A sleek-looking gun with a long, thin barrel. It reminded her of something out of a spy movie. And she had no idea where it had been before. Probably inside that steel case he had hidden inside his real suitcase. Good thing they’d taken the bus to Atlanta. He never would have made it onto an airplane with all those gadgets or that gun.
Because Lydia stood frozen, staring at the gun, Dev shook her gently. “Lydia, I need you to be alert. Stay focused, okay?”
“We have to get out of here.”
“Lydia, honey, are you with me?”
He moved close enough to see the solid fear in her pretty eyes. “Lydia?”
“I’m with you,” she whispered, slowly moving her head again. “But I sure would like to know why we’re getting out of here. I mean, we can’t just leave your friend in the bathtub. We should call the police. We should—”
“No police,” he said, his tone firm. “I’ll explain everything later, I promise,” he added in a soft whisper, his fingers brushing through her bangs.
She nodded and said, “Okay.”
Then Dev reminded himself that she was probably in shock. Things had taken a distinctively different swing from the original plans. And getting Lydia involved in a life he’d tried to put behind him was definitely not in the plans. But he couldn’t change that right now. He could only try to protect her.
“Let’s go,” he said, throwing a dark shirt toward her. “Put this on to camouflage yourself.”
Lydia put on the shirt. “This smells like your laundry detergent,” she said as he tugged at her sleeves. “I know which brand you use. I saw it on your To Do list one day. Not that I’d ever snoop.”
Dev ignored her chatter. Let her chat. Lydia was a talker, especially when she got nervous. Right now, he had to focus; he had to get her out of here. “Button up,” he ordered, keeping his tone firm.
She hurriedly buttoned the big shirt over her demur summer sweater, a dazed expression on her face.
“Ready?” he asked, his no-nonsense gaze focused on her as he looked directly into her hazel eyes. Dev wondered if she knew how much she meant to him. He’d have to tell her one day.
She nodded and held tight to her tote bag. “I think so.”
Dev worked quickly to get them through the locked door to the empty room adjoining theirs. Putting a finger to his lips, he motioned for Lydia to stay quiet as he waited for the right moment. They managed to sneak down the hall just as the intruders came bursting into the other room.
“We’re going to take the stairs down to the street,” he explained, his voice back to normal now. Almost too normal. He stayed calm and in control, for Lydia’s sake, but taking fourteen flights down to the street wasn’t exactly a leisurely stroll. And leaving a room with his dead best friend in it wasn’t too good, either. But he’d deal with that later. Much later.
“Okay,” Lydia said. What else could she say, since she couldn’t take her chances on the elevator and meet up with those Very Bad Guys? Her mama and daddy didn’t raise a complete idiot, after all.
So down the stairs they went, flying so fast Lydia wondered if her sensible black Easy Spirit pumps were even touching the steps. But she was glad they were durable enough for someone on the run. She was amazed she didn’t even get a blister. And she was also amazed that they didn’t get shot. Lydia could hear the Very Bad Guys clunking down the stairs above them, the sound echoing like a death knell each time they rounded another floor. Then just as they reached the seventh floor, she felt the whiz and ping of a bullet ricocheting off the stairwell, very close to her head.
Screaming, Lydia put a hand up, as if that would stop a bullet from killing her. The look in Pastor Dev’s eyes told her the same thing. For once, the man looked scared. Scared for her, since he grabbed her and held her tight.
“Keep running, Lydia,” Pastor Dev said to her, pushing her in front of him. Of course, he would be the gentleman, even in such a desperate life-or-death situation, so he naturally put himself in harm’s way between her and the VBGs. That was a relief, until she started worrying that he’d get shot and then he’d be dead and she’d never grow old with him, or have his babies or be able to be the pastor’s wife like she’d dreamed about for the last few years. Not to mention, the VBGs would still be after her. And she’d be all alone, wondering how she’d somehow wound up in Pastor Dev’s hotel room with a dead body in the bathtub. Not to mention, having to explain all of that to the entire congregation.
But, she thought as she ran ahead of him, hadn’t Pastor Dev asked her to trust him? Knowing that there was much more to this story, Lydia put her trust in God, praying to Him to help them out of this situation. Right now she only knew three things for sure. She was still in love with Pastor Dev, the Very Bad Guys were still chasing them and they were both in a whole lot of trouble.