Sample text for The nosy neighbor / Fern Michaels.

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Chapter One

Six Months Later

Lucy Baker shoved her tennis racquet into its case, waved to her tennis partner, and proceeded to jog across the high school field to the track where she would run her daily five miles. A roll of thunder caused her to pick up her feet and sprint. When she reached the track, she tossed her canvas bag onto the bleachers and took off running.

Tennis, and a five-mile run every day regardless of the weather, had became a routine for her in the six months since she'd stopped practicing law.

Lucy kept one eye on the threatening thunderclouds overhead and the other on the track. She picked up her speed, not wanting to get caught in a thunderstorm. Off in the distance she could hear hard, rolling thunder, which seemed to be getting closer. One more lap to go. If she pushed it into high gear, she could pass the other runners, who looked like they were dragging. It was always this way on the last lap, she thought smugly.

She loved passing the muscle boys, shouting out words of encouragement. They were slugs compared to her. In all fairness, not that they needed to know, she'd run track in high school as well as college. She'd hurdled, too. Best on her team. She had the medals to prove it. Of course, they were locked away in one of her trunks. One didn't show off medals. At least she didn't. It was enough for her that she'd earned them, had them, and could look at them anytime she wanted to. Sometimes she needed to remind herself that at one time she'd been the best of the best.

Her coaches had said she was good enough to go to the Olympics. She had thought so, too. But life got in the way, and she'd had to bow out. She didn't have any regrets. Taking care of her mother during the last two years of her life had been more important than bringing home the gold.

Lucy whizzed past the bleachers at the south end of the track. She couldn't help but notice two men in dark suits, their arms crossed over their chests. She wondered which one of the guys on the track they were waiting for.

Sweat dripped down Lucy's face, soaking the tank top she was wearing. Her muscular arms glistened. She was hurting. She'd pushed too hard, too fast on her last lap. "No pain, no gain," she muttered over and over as she flew down the track. She saw the bleachers beckoning her. For one wild moment she thought she was at the wrong end of the track when she saw the two men approaching the north side bleachers. They must have run at her own speed to get there at the exact moment she came to a stop, bent over, with the palms of her sweaty hands on her knees as she took deep breaths. They looked as if they were in great physical shape under their dark suits. She wondered again who they were waiting for.

When her breathing was almost normal, she walked over to the end of the bleachers away from the men and did leg stretches. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see them approaching her. Lucy looked around to see if anyone was paying attention. Her heart kicked up a beat. This was suburbia, nothing happened in suburbia.

Lucy was about to reach up to the second row of seats for her gym bag when one of the men handed it to her. "Lucy Baker?"

"Yes. I'm Lucy Baker." She waited. They could have passed for twins. Frick and Frack. Yin and Yang.

"Special Agent Harry Conover. This is my partner, Larry Smith."

"What does that mean? Special agents of what?" She could feel an itch settle between her shoulder blades.

"We're from the Federal Bureau of Investigation." Two badges were suddenly shoved under her nose. Lucy backed up a half step and reached for the men's credentials. She read them carefully before she handed them back. She waited, her heart thumping inside her chest.

"We'd like to talk to you for a minute."

Lucy looked up at the darkening sky. She could still hear the thunder, now directly overhead. It sounded more ominous for some reason. "Why? I haven't done anything wrong. I pay my taxes on time and never cheat. I never even got a parking ticket. It's going to pour in another minute. Like I said, why?"

"We could sit in our car and talk."

Lucy snorted. "I-don't-think-so!" No sooner were the words out of her mouth than the sky opened up. Within seconds she was soaked to the skin. "As you can see, I'm already drenched. If you want to get those nice suits all wet, oh, well," she said with false bravado. Why did the FBI want to talk to her?

The agent named Harry said, "We'd like to talk to you about your fiance;."

Lucy gaped at the two men. "Jonathan? Why? Oh, God, did something happen to him?"

"Not yet," Larry said. "We'd like you to tell us about your relationship with Mr. St. Clair."

Lucy relaxed. The rain was coming down harder. Before long it would be like a waterfall. "I'm going to marry him. We're engaged." She waved her ring finger to show off her three-carat diamond.

"We already know you're getting married next year, on Valentine's Day. You have your gown. Let's see, you purchased it at Bethany's Bridal Shoppe. They're doing the alterations as we speak. The invitations have been ordered. You're holding the reception at the Ritz-Carlton. I believe there are 250 guests expected. Dinner is a choice of lobster or filet mignon. The salad is an arugula medley. Vegetables are baby carrots, peas from the Emerald Isle, potato-apple fritters, and flaky croissants. Dessert is wedding cake. Cristal champagne will flow endlessly," Agent Smith said, his expression as flat as his tone.

Lucy didn't like what she was hearing. There was nothing like an FBI check to put the fear of God into a person. There was shock as well as fear in her eyes as she backed up one step, then another. They followed her.

"A pretty pricey wedding for a girl who graduated at the top of her law school class, quit a thriving criminal law practice, and now makes popcorn balls and sells them through a catalog."

Well, they had one thing wrong. She wasn't the one who made or sold the popcorn balls. Lucy eyeballed the two agents. "I make an honest living, and I pay my taxes. Listen, I have to go home. It was nice talking with you gentlemen. If you want to talk to Jonathan, call him or go to his apartment. He doesn't leave for work till around nine-thirty when he's in town." She knew for a fact that Jonathan wasn't in town. Let them spin their wheels.

The agent named Larry wiped the rain from his forehead. "If we wanted to talk to Mr. St. Clair, we would have gone to see him. We know his habits as well as we know yours. Agent Conover and I would like to talk to you."

"What do you want to talk about? If it's about Jonathan's business, I'm afraid I can't help you. I don't know anything about it."

It was raining harder now. Since she was already soaked clear through to her skin, what did it matter? "Furthermore, I don't have to talk to you. The last time I checked, this was still a free country. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go home."

"Miss Baker." It was Agent Conover talking now. "It's imperative you not tell Mr. St. Clair about our meeting this morning. By the way, Jonathan St. Clair is not your fiance;'s real name."

Lucy whirled around. "What are you talking about? Of course it's his real name. Jonathan is Jonathan. You must have him mixed up with someone else." Overhead, thunder boomed, followed by a streak of jagged lightning ripping across the gray sky.

"If you talk to your fiance;, it will jeopardize the case we're working on. We can take you into custody if we want to. In order to avoid that, we're asking you to cooperate with us."

Take me into custody. Jonathan isn't Jonathan. I'm having a nightmare, and I'll wake up any second now. She pinched herself. She felt the pain.

"All right, I won't say anything to Jonathan. Now can I go?"

"We'll know if you break your promise, Miss Baker. Do you know what obstructing justice means?" Agent Conover asked. "Of course you do; you're a lawyer."

"Of course."

"We'll talk again, Miss Baker."

"No, Agent Smith, we will not talk again because there is no need for us to talk. I cannot help you with whatever it is you're doing or investigating. I told you I would not say anything to Jonathan, and I won't. That's the end of it."

"Where was your fiance; born, Miss Baker?"

"Winchester, Virginia, but then you probably already know that."

Both agents threw their hands up in the air. They looked like they were catching rain by the handful. "You see, wrong again. Your fiance; was born in Akron, Ohio. Do you want to know his real name?"

His real name. They were making Jonathan sound like some kind of criminal. Lucy could feel her shoulders start to slump. Her voice could barely be heard over the rumbling thunder. "What is it?"

"Leo Banks. His friends used to call him Lucky Leo. Does that ring any bells for you, Miss Baker?" Agent Smith asked.

Lucy looked at both agents. She hoped they would freeze in the rain, just the way she was freezing. They'd just invaded her life and turned it upside down. She thought about the thousands of seed pearls that were being sewn on her wedding gown. The FBI agents had made a mistake. Of course, this was all a mistake.

"I never heard the name before. I'm telling you, you have the wrong person. Jonathan is not this...this Leo Banks person. I would know. I saw a picture of the house he grew up in. The house is in Winchester, Virginia. I know the street and house number, but I can't think of it right this minute."

"Were you ever there, Miss Baker?"

This was all wrong. This shouldn't be happening. But it was. "No, I've never been there." Both agents raised their eyebrows.

She sounded desperate when she said, "Jonathan is incredibly busy. We just couldn't find the time to get down there. Winchester is a bit of a drive."

"The house in Winchester belongs to one of Leo's friends."

It's all a bunch of lies. It has to be all lies.

"Did you ever meet your fiance;'s parents?"

"How could I meet them? They live in Spain. If we couldn't find the time to go to Winchester, Virginia, how could we find the time to go to Spain, or Chile, where his sister lives? He has no brothers, just one sister. I'm leaving now."

"How convenient. We'll talk again, Miss Baker," Agent Conover said.

Lucy ignored both men as she jogged off, her feet squishing inside her sodden sneakers. She needed to go home, where it was warm and toasty, so she could think. Hot, black coffee was a must. What had just transpired was too preposterous for words.

"One more thing, Miss Baker," Agent Smith called out. "Be careful, your life could be in danger."

Lucy raised her right hand and gave the agent a single-digit salute. She wondered if he saw it through the pouring rain. She'd heard his words, though. Until that moment, she'd never been colder in her life. Or more frightened.

Twelve minutes later, Lucy bolted up the front steps, body-slammed the front door, barreled through, and headed straight for the downstairs shower, where she stepped in -- clothes and all -- to let the steaming water wash over her. She shook from head to toe. The stink of her own fear clogged her nostrils until she thought she was going to choke to death.

Lucy reached for the shampoo bottle and poured some over her long, tawny hair. The same hair Jonathan liked to run his fingers through after they made wonderful, satisfying love. Jonathan.

No, not Jonathan St. Clair. Leo Banks from Akron, Ohio.

It had to be a lie. Otherwise, the relationship she thought was so wonderful was all a lie. It couldn't be! Not now, when the seed pearls were being hand-sewn onto her wedding gown.

She knew a thing or two about the FBI. Actually, she knew more than she wanted to know. Dogs with bones. They never gave up. They always got their man.

Lucy was finally warm, so she kicked off her sneakers and peeled off her clothes. She continued to stand under the needlelike spray, knowing she was going to need at least half a jar of body lotion for her skin once she toweled dry. Did she really care? Maybe she needed to care because Jonathan said her skin was like silk and satin all rolled into one. Yes, she needed to care.

Instead of drying herself off with a towel, she reached for a thick, thirsty robe that Jonathan had bought for her at the Ritz-Carlton when they'd vacationed on Amelia Island.

Even though the heat blasted from the registers and the steam was still fogging up the bathroom, Lucy shivered.

In the kitchen, she did everything automatically. She filled the coffeepot, plugged in the toaster, took bread out of the wooden bread drawer, reached for the jam, which was nestled behind a quart container of orange juice. She poured. She softened the butter in the microwave and reached for the vitamin bottle. The beginning of a new day. Something she always looked forward to.

Rain beat against the kitchen window. Lucy brought her clenched fist up to her lips to stifle a cry that was about to erupt from her soul.

Two men. Awful words. And her world as she knew it was changed. How could that be?

Lucy poured coffee, buttered her toast, then spread the strawberry jam on it. She carried both the coffee and the plate to the table, along with a napkin. She eyed the glass of orange juice but didn't move to pick it up. She knew she wasn't going to eat the toast either. How could she? It would stick in her throat like wet straw and strangle her. Instead, she gulped at the coffee, burning her tongue and throat. She'd forgotten the cream and sugar. She detested black coffee, but Jonathan loved his black, the stronger the better.

She needed to think. Instead, she let her gaze slide past the kitchen doorway to the dining room, where a pile of wedding invitations waited to be addressed and stamped. She'd started writing them out two days ago. She knew in her gut she would never mail them. Not now. Probably not ever.

Tears puddled in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She made no move to wipe them away. She continued to sip at the scalding coffee as she sniffed and sniffled.

The FBI agents had been wrong. She didn't make popcorn balls, nor did she sell them. She did, however, work three hours a day for Nellie Ebersole, a delightful elderly lady, who supplemented her income doing just that. All she did was process orders on the computer because the old lady had bad eyesight and didn't want to learn the intricacies of the computer. It was something to do to fill the hours of her days until she decided what new direction she wanted to take in her life.

She'd moved here to Edison, New Jersey, almost six months ago, exactly two weeks after Justin Riley walked out of the courtroom a free man. She'd rented the house she was living in for a month, then purchased it, bought new furniture, and settled down to vegetate. Sadie, her golden retriever, loved the huge backyard, and was happily digging a tunnel to the next yard so she could visit Clueless Cooper, a hundred-pound golden Lab. Coop, as he was known in the neighborhood, was tunneling on his side of the fence, too. Sooner or later they were going to meet somewhere underground. She hoped the meeting would be everything Sadie wanted it to be.

Lucy groaned when she saw Sadie run up to the deck and slam against the sliding door. She was covered in mud. She inched the door open and squeezed through. Damn, the temperature must have dropped twenty degrees since she'd gotten home. "You know the drill, Sadie," Lucy said as she slid back the cover of the hot tub. The retriever hopped onto the bench and into the tub, where she splashed around until she was clean, then hopped out. She shook off the excess water as Lucy shocked the hot tub with chemicals, turned on the jets, and replaced the cover.

She was almost to the door when she heard someone shouting. She cocked her head to peer around the corner to see a dark-haired man dressed in a business suit jumping up and down by the fence. "Hey, you! You with the dog! Do you think you can keep that mutt of yours inside when my dog is outside?"

Clueless Cooper's owner. He hadn't come over and introduced himself or welcomed her to the neighborhood in the six months she'd lived here. He only yelled at her from the other side of the fence about her dog. A couple of times during the summer she'd caught him peering nosily into her backyard. What a jerk! "Why don't you try keeping your mutt inside when my dog is outside? What do you expect me to do, stand by the door all day and watch to see if your dog is outside? Get real, mister," Lucy snarled. Like she needed a confrontation with her nosy neighbor today of all days.

"You're going to be a hard-ass about this, aren't you? I can tell by the sound of your voice you're a troublemaker," the man on the other side of the fence challenged.

Lucy chewed her lower lip to keep from laughing. She offered up a parting salvo before entering the house. "Try sitting on a pointy stick for a while," She knew he was a lawyer, a commercial litigator with a firm in New York because Nellie Ebersole had told her all about the neighbors. She'd referred to Coop's owner as a delectable hunk of beefcake who couldn't seem to hang on to a woman. Crazy hours, crazy dog, she'd theorized. She'd gone on to say that if the neighbors didn't take pity on him, he'd starve to death and that he stank up the neighborhood when he tried to grill. The summary on one Wylie Wilson by the neighbors was that he was as clueless as his dog, a shark in the courtroom, and one handsome fortysomething dude. Just what Lucy needed.

Sadie bellied across the carpet in the family room, her eyes soulful as she looked up at her mistress as though to say, you take the fun out of everything. Lucy tried to ignore her as she padded barefoot into the kitchen to pour more coffee. She was scanning her grocery list when Sadie reared up and raced to the sliding glass doors, her bark so shrill the hair on the back of Lucy's neck stood on end.

There on her deck was Clueless Cooper, covered in mud from head to toe. Obviously, he'd finished the tunnel from his side of the yard. A second later the door slid open, thanks to Sadie's paw on the latch, and Coop was in the house. All one hundred pounds of him. Lucy watched in horror as the huge dog hopped on the beige sofa, then onto the matching chair, before he hopped down and rolled over and over on the beige carpet. Lucy shrieked and shouted to no avail. The dogs raced through the house leaving a trail of mud that was going to take her all day to clean up.

"Damn!" she said succinctly, just as the doorbell rang.

Lucy knew who it was even before she opened the door. He looked sheepish, she had to give him that. He looked good, too, and he "I hope you brought your work clothes, because I'm not cleaning up after your dog," she shouted, to be heard over the sound of the dogs' barking.


"No, you listen. Your dog tunneled over here. That makes you culpable. He is your dog. He's trying to make out with my dog, which is an exercise in futility because Sadie has been fixed."

"Cooper's fixed, too. I'm sorry. I'm running late this morning. I didn't know about the tunnel. I guess he's been digging it for some time. It's usually dark when I get home. I guess I should have seen it, but I didn't. What do you want me to do? I have to be in court by ten o'clock, and I just missed the train." He whistled sharply for his dog, who ignored him completely.

"Sadie!" Lucy bellowed. The retriever ignored her, too. Angrily, she stomped her way down the hall to the last room on the right, where she stared in horror at the bedroom she'd spent weeks decorating. The champagne satin comforter was streaked with mud, the matching chair was so dirty it looked like it had come from the garbage dump. Both dogs sat up straight, their rumps on her satiny pillows. Sadie had the good sense to slide off the bed and wiggle under it, knowing full well Lucy couldn't reach her. Cooper stared defiantly at his owner and his hostess.

"I'll make this up to you, I swear I will," Wylie said, his voice desperate-sounding. "Look, I'm going to have to drive to the city. I really have to go, or the judge is going to fry my ass. When I get home tonight, I'll come over here and help you clean up. I'll pay for any and all damages."

"You expect me to leave all this till sometime tonight when you get home. In your dreams, mister!"

"Yeah. Yeah, I do. I don't have any other options right now." Wylie had his hand inside Coop's collar and was dragging him off the bed. Lucy took a small amount of pleasure in seeing some of the mud rub off on her neighbor's pant leg. She grinned as he cursed under his breath. At the door he turned, and sniped, "That remark about the pointy stick was uncalled for." The moment the door closed behind her neighbor, Lucy shouted for Sadie, who continued to ignore her.

If nothing else, Sadie and Cooper's romp had driven the ugly thoughts concerning Jonathan and the FBI agents from Lucy's mind.

An hour later, Clueless Cooper was back on the deck demanding to be let into the house. Wylie Wilson must have a doggie door. It was cold, and it was still raining. A heavy sigh escaped Lucy's lips when she let herself out onto the deck. She moved the cover of the hot tub, and said, "Get in; then you can come in the house." Clueless Cooper, whom she now knew for certain to be as clueless as his owner, jumped in, paddled around, then hopped out. He looked up at her with puppy-dog eyes that melted her anger. "Okay, come on. You can keep Sadie company." The house shook as Coop beelined through the rooms in search of his friend.

Jurisprudence was never this interesting, she thought as she leafed through the yellow pages to call Disaster Master Cleaning Service. She was told they could accommodate her in three hours for the sum of four hundred dollars. She was no fool; she snapped up the offer and clicked off the phone. Wylie Wilson was going to be four hundred dollars poorer by this evening.

Lucy stared down at the emerald-cut diamond on her finger. Tears burned her eyes as she wondered if there would ever be a matching band on that finger. The FBI was wrong. They had to be wrong. Jonathan was Jonathan, not that Leo Banks or that Lucky Leo person. It was all some big misunderstanding. It had to be. It just had to be.

Copyright © 2005 by MRK Productions, Inc.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Swindlers and swindling -- Fiction.
Criminals -- Fiction.