The Guardian
Linda Winstead Jones

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“This is ridiculous,” she said in a calm voice. “The least you can do is park your car, get out and walk with me.” She could only imagine what her neighbors would have to say about that, but it was preferable to having him tail her around the block at three miles an hour.

It was obvious by Dante’s expression that he had not expected the invitation. He’d expected—perhaps even wanted—a fight.

“All right,” he said, pulling his car closer to the curb and shutting off the engine. He exited the car in a way that was smooth and graceful and strong. She wasn’t sure how that was possible, but it was. This man, Chief Jesse Edwards’s cousin or not, was trouble with a capital T.

After the disaster with Dante so many years ago, Sara had worked very hard to be immune to trouble, especially of the male kind. While her friends in college had gone gaga over bad boys with pretty faces, she had always looked for more. She’d looked for intelligence and a sense of humor and kindness. She’d looked for stability. After her brief and fabulous and ultimately unhappy experience with Dante, those were the attributes she deemed to be worthy, not killer dark eyes and a face with sharp lines and nicely shaped lips, and thick heads of hair that might be a warm black or a very dark brown. Not long legs and strong hands and a way of moving that was both graceful and masculine. Those things were nice bonuses, but they were shallow and not at all important.

So why did her mouth go dry as Dante Mangino approached? “You’re not really dressed for walking.”

“That’s not a problem,” he said, and then he smiled.

“You don’t walk very fast.”

Sara resumed her walk. With Dante beside her she felt much less anxious in one way—and much more uneasy in another. She couldn’t allow a man to get under her skin so easily. Her memories of the past were just that—memories of a time gone by. She was not the same person she’d been at seventeen, and neither was he. She didn’t know him at all. Dante was still good-looking, and he was in great physical shape—and he had no manners at all. He had a wicked grin and a way of taking her breath away with a glance.

For so long—from the time she’d met Robert eleven years ago, in fact—her relationships with men other than her husband had been businesslike or comfortably casual. She’d never met any man who made her feel so on edge, so anxious. Sara was old enough and experienced enough to know what that edgy feeling meant.

In an instant, Dante Mangino had reawakened a part of her that had been sleeping for such a long time she’d thought it dead and gone.

It would be best to quickly and firmly put him in that business category, to squash whatever it was he aroused in her. “So,” she said casually as they walked down the familiar sidewalk. “Tell me about yourself. Are you married?” She hoped he’d say yes. No matter how attractive he was, no matter how he turned her stomach to mush with a glance, no matter that she still remembered what his arms felt like when they wrapped around her, she would not even consider getting involved with or even fantasizing about a married man.

“Nope,” he answered. He matched her short strides with his long ones with little effort, and offered no details or other information about himself.

“I imagine you have a serious girlfriend,” she said. As long as he was in some sort of committed relationship…

“No,” he said, as decisively as he’d denied being married.

She knew he wasn’t gay. Too bad. That would definitely solve her problem. She was a sensible woman. Why had she felt drawn to this man from the moment she’d opened the door? She didn’t believe in instant attraction! It was too much like love at first sight, which she most definitely did not believe in. She and Robert had been friends first, good friends, and love had come later. It had grown slowly and surely into something special.

Robert had been a lasting, slow burn. Dante had been a firecracker.

“Why the interest in my personal life, Mayor?” Dante asked.

Did he address her as “Mayor” in order to maintain a distance? Was he as uninterested in rekindling what they’d had as she was? It wasn’t as if they’d seen one another and fallen into welcoming arms. “I’m just trying to be friendly, to catch up. After all, we haven’t seen each other in a long time. I’m simply making conversation, and you’re not helping with your one-word answers.”

“Sorry,” he responded, not sounding at all remorseful. “So, let’s catch up. Are you dating anyone? Is there a guy around who would love to see you in that teeny-weeny red silk…”

“Dante Mangino!” Sara snapped. “That is…” she stammered and her step faltered. “That question is so inappropriate, I don’t know how to respond.”

“Yes or no will do,” he said, his step and his voice maddeningly steady. “After all, we’re just making conversation. Just catching up.” There was an edge to his voice as he threw her words back at her.

“Perhaps we shouldn’t bother,” she muttered. As they rounded the corner she was glad for the ensuing silence. She and Dante had nothing in common these days. They never had! Yes, he was good-looking and a fine example of the male species, but if she had to spend more than a few minutes alone with him, he’d quickly drive her crazy. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily have to talk…Sara started counting her steps to lead her mind in another direction.

“Is there a boyfriend?” her walking companion asked a short while later, his voice deeper and more thoughtful than it had been before.

“I don’t see that it’s an issue.”

“A boyfriend or ex should be the first suspect in a theft like yours. The angle is very personal, very intimate.”

At least he didn’t say underwear again. “No boyfriend,” she said. “No ex, either,” she added before he could ask.

“That surprises me,” he said, sounding momentarily sincere.

“I’m a widow.”

“I know. Sorry.” His words were simple and short but seemed heartfelt. “So, no boyfriends at all since your husband died?”

“Robert’s been gone four years.” Four years, three months and seven days, to be precise. “No, there hasn’t been anyone since then.” That sting in her heart flared up again. The ache always caught her by surprise, though by now she should be used to it.

“How about unwanted attention?” Dante asked. “Has anyone been asking you out repeatedly, hanging around, sending gifts, writing letters?”

Since he sounded as if he was thinking strictly of business, she did not take offense. “No.” Then she laughed lightly and added, “Unless you count anonymous letters telling me what a terrible mayor I am and how a woman has no business in the office and how…”

Dante stopped in his tracks. “Anonymous letters?”

Sara stopped, too. They had almost completed her usual circuitous course, and she could see her house two doors down. It was all but dark, and where the oaks shadowed her house and the street it truly was night. “It comes with the job.”

“Do any of these letters threaten violence?” Dante snapped.

“No. They’re simply the ramblings of dissatisfied residents of Tillman who’re too cowardly to sign their names.”

Her escort took her arm and led her toward her house. “Did you keep the letters?”

“Yes. I file all correspondence.” He was moving a little bit too fast for her. With his quick step and long legs and the way he held her arm, she had to almost jog to keep pace.

“Tomorrow morning I’d like a look at those letters.”

“Why? They can’t possibly be related to the theft.”

“Can’t possibly?” he repeated. “Are you sure?”

She didn’t have an answer for that, so she remained silent as he steered her with purpose toward her own front door.

After driving around the block a couple of times and then grabbing a coffee and sandwich to go at the Tillman Café, Dante parked at the curb in front of the mayor’s house. He was probably being overly cautious, but in his world that was much preferable to not being cautious enough. He’d had the world yanked out from under him once before and wouldn’t allow that to happen again. It was easiest to expect and be prepared for the worst.

When he got a look at the letters in the morning, he’d have a better idea about whether or not he should be concerned. Working for Bennings, he was usually called in after the case had turned serious. He wasn’t sure how to handle something that might be threatening but was more likely to be nothing at all.

By nine-thirty, all the downstairs lights in Sara Vance’s house were out. There were outdoor lights that remained on for security purposes, but he could easily see the interior illumination through the windows, and one by one the lamps and overhead lights were extinguished. He could imagine Sara climbing the stairs, drawing a bath—or did she prefer a shower?—then climbing into bed with a book or maybe some work she’d brought home with her. What would she sleep in? he wondered. Flannel pajamas, maybe. A long, prim nightgown with a drawstring in the hem. Then again, perhaps she had a secret wild side and slept in red satin or, even better, nothing at all. The prim presentation could be a front, a facade that kept unwanted attention at a distance.

You must be Sergeant Mangino, my ass.

Her bedroom faced the street. At least, Dante assumed it was her bedroom, since that was where the last light of the night remained on. Yeah, that was her bedroom. He could see no more than lacy, feminine curtains, and still, he knew. She was there, sitting up in her bed with that book or papers from work in her lap. Maybe there was a television in that room and she was catching the news.

Sitting alone in his car, he smiled. Maybe he hadn’t recognized her right away, but he would never forget Sarabeth Caldwell and those few weeks they’d spent so much time together. They had run in such dissimilar circles that they never should’ve met, but in a small town it had been inevitable.

Her date at a summer party for the popular kids—a party Dante had crashed, thanks to cousin Jesse—had drunk too much beer and had ended up making out with one of Sarabeth’s friends. Moron. The other girl had been easy and, as he remembered, well developed, but she had not been nearly as pretty as Sarabeth.

He remembered stepping outside to smoke and finding her, shoulders shaking and face in hands. For a moment he’d considered sneaking back into the house before she saw him, but instead he’d offered to drive her home.
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