Lily's Homecoming Under Fire
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In California’s Wine Country Someone Wants Lily Dead
When Lily Callahan returns home to California’s wine country, sparks fly amid a hail of bullets as she and Deputy U.S. Marshall Austin Jennings take cover.
Money, fame, and love all come into play as motives when Lily and Austin try to discover who wants Lily dead. The trouble begins soon after Lily’s beloved Aunt Lettie dies and leaves her vineyard estate to Lily—is it about the money? Counterfeit wine and growing suspicions about Aunt Lettie’s death add to the mystery. Life in small-town California wine country is a tangled vine of mystery, suspense, and intrigue.
Grab your copy of this fast-paced mystery with twists and turns, romance, and a dash of humor from USA Today and Wall Street Journal Bestselling author, Anna Celeste Burke.
Free to read with Kindle Unlimited.
Release date: January 12, 2019
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 242
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Lily's Homecoming Under Fire
Anna Celeste Burke
The first bullet whizzed by my head. I saw a flash of light but couldn’t make sense of what was happening even when the bullet found a target behind me. I stood, frozen in place, on the front porch of the elegant private cottage Aunt Lettie’s lawyer had reserved for me. I hugged Marlowe who was barking fiercely and took a step backward into the foyer. Marlowe wriggled free and jumped to the floor.
A hand holding a white Stetson whacked the porch light, shattering the fixture and the bulb. The owner of the Stetson bumped into me as he bounded indoors. That sent me sliding over the polished wood floor of my rustic chic suite. I yelped as I landed on my well-padded derriere and a barrage of bullets flew over my head.
My heart raced as the shots sank into some surfaces and ricocheted off others. When I struggled to sit up, the stranger tackled me and forced me flat onto the floor. I fought to wrestle free. Marlowe snarled and pulled furiously at the man’s sleeve.
“Stay down,” he said as he rolled off me. He shook his arm forcefully, and Marlowe tumbled away, end over end. Furious, I punched the man as he kicked the door shut with a firmly planted, exquisitely carved leather boot. In almost the same motion, he reached up and yanked the lamp off a table near the entry. As the room went dark, two bullets slammed into the heavy wooden front door and sent splinters flying.
Moonlight streamed in through the sliding doors leading outside from the great room behind me. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see the shadowy figure straining to shove the sofa in front of the door. Marlowe had a grip on his pant leg, growling and shaking his head as he tore at the fabric.
Were Marlowe and I being taken as hostages? I wondered as my stomach roiled in terror.
As my would-be captor peeked through the blinds he’d shut, I flipped over onto my belly and scrambled, crablike, toward the safety of my master suite. The door could be bolted from inside. I didn’t get far before he grabbed me and pressed me flat again, knocking the wind out of me. The bullets shattered glass, and the maniac returned fire shooting at someone behind us. My heart sank as I realized he had a gun.
In the distance, I could hear a siren blaring. As it drew closer, I heard shouts, and then footsteps. The footsteps came from the deck outside my bedroom. A minute or two later, tires screeched as a vehicle took off.
“I’ve told you, already—stay down.” This time when he rolled away, the intruder pulled a phone from a pocket. Then he handed Marlowe to me. “Take this and keep it quiet.”
“Rikki,” he said almost immediately after he placed a call. “I’ve got a situation on my hands.” Those sirens blared now. I imagined them racing toward us up the long driveway leading from the roadway to the cottage.
I considered making a run for it again while the madman spoke on the phone in a low voice. The sofa blocked the front door, but maybe I could escape out the sliding doors to the deck and take the same route the gunman had used. With my luck, running in the dark, I’d impale myself on an enormous shard of glass. A piece of glass might make a good weapon, though. With my free hand, I carefully explored the floor around me, searching for anything that I could use to hurt this guy. He hadn’t even flinched when I landed a blow earlier.
“How should I know? Give me a second and I’ll ask her.” No longer speaking in a whisper, his voice jolted me.
“My boss has a question for you.” The glow of light from his phone lit the space around him. He was leaning back on his haunches, squatting down like a catcher behind home plate. “Who wants you dead?”
“Me?” I replied. “Why would anyone want me dead? Those psychopaths must have been after you! Why did you lead them here? Ask ‘your boss’ who’s going to pay for the destruction they left behind? Not me, I can assure you.” I was growing angrier by the minute.
“She has no idea,” he said to the person on the other end of that call. “Okay, thanks.” He slipped the phone into a shirt pocket. Then he held out a hand.
“I’m Deputy U.S. Marshal Austin Jennings.”
“Lily Callahan,” I replied.
“Lily, I’m glad to meet you, although I wish we were saying hello under better circumstances. You’re safe. The bad guys are gone, and the cavalry will arrive any minute now. May I help you up?” The sirens wailed, hurtling toward us.
“Yes, if you promise not to tackle me again.” I took his hand, and he pulled me to my feet. “Shoot!” I exclaimed as I stood. During the fracas, I must have busted a heel on my favorite pair of ankle boots. The pricey designer boots had been one of the gifts in a swag bag at the Emmy Awards ceremony I’d attended a couple of years ago.
“Are you okay?” Austin asked as I lost my balance and fell forward, right into his arms. My head rested on his chest for a split second. I could hear his heart pounding. The scent of the outdoors clung to him despite the fact he was damp with sweat from exertion. His embrace was comforting, although I still had the urge to wring his neck. In part, he’d worked up that sweat by wrestling me to the floor more than once. I held onto his arm as I reached down, unzipped the boot, and removed it.
“Ooh, ouch!” I said as I did that. “Don’t worry. I’m sore, but nothing’s broken except the heel on my boot.” When I looked up, he’d bent over a little to see what I was doing. His face, cast in moonlight and shadow, was closer than I’d expected, and my lips brushed against his cheek when I spoke. “Sorry,” I said as I put my unclad foot back onto the floor, still a little wobbly.
“Hang on,” he said. “I’m going to take off the other one for you.” He smiled for the first time. I couldn’t help returning his smile, even though I still held him accountable for one of the most terrifying events of my life.
Apparently, Marlowe had completely forgiven him. He stood next to Austin with his tail whipping the marshal’s arm near where my pint-sized pooch had previously tried to sink his teeth into it. Out in front of my guest house, I could hear vehicles screeching to a halt and doors slamming. I’m not sure why Marlowe wasn’t concerned about the disturbance going on outside.
There’s still a disturbance going on in here, too, I thought. I sucked in a tiny gulp of air when Austin gently, but firmly, grasped my calf, and lifted my foot. I clutched his shoulder to steady myself. He unzipped the boot, and then slowly removed it before placing my foot back onto the floor.
“That’s better isn’t it?” He asked as I let go and he stood up not more than a few inches from me. So close, I could feel the warmth radiating from his body. I nodded. I wasn’t sure if he could see my response in the pool of moonlight that was still the only source of illumination in the room.
“Thanks,” I whispered, managing just that one word before Marlowe’s tail stopped wagging. What sounded like a platoon of soldiers stormed up the porch steps. It wasn’t until someone pounded on the door that Marlowe began to bark again.
“Austin, Rikki just called. Will you let us in and tell us what the hell is going on?”
“Give me a minute,” Austin hollered. He dashed to the door and moved the sofa out of the way. The door swung open, and flashlights sought us out. The beams moved from Austin to me. They lingered there until Marlowe growled and they put him in the spotlight.
A uniformed officer I guessed to be in his early fifties was the first person over the threshold. Before I could get a good look at him, he flipped a wall switch, and I had to shield my eyes when the overhead lights came on. They were way too bright after what I’d experienced as an eternity of moonlight and madness.
“Holy crap!” Another officer cried as he stepped through the doorway and scanned the carnage. The extent of the damage was stunning.
“Marlowe! Come!” I commanded. My obedient Miniature Pinscher sprang into my arms as more people filed into the room. I felt exposed standing there barefoot and disheveled. Or, maybe it was because Austin Jennings hadn’t taken his eyes off me since the lights went on.
“Oh, no! This is a disaster,” a man said. Wearing a sports coat emblazoned with the resort logo, he had to be the resort’s night manager. “I demand you answer Sheriff Conner’s question, Marshal Jennings.”
“Lily Callahan is that you?” A younger officer asked. “It’s me, Denny Saunders. I haven’t seen you in years except on TV. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve come home.”
“What a homecoming, huh? You sure know how to make an entrance! This is like something out of a movie—Lily’s Homecoming Under Fire!” He grinned from ear to ear, gesturing as though he was reading the title on a theater marquee. “Welcome home.”
The Morning After
I stumbled out of bed the next morning, disoriented when I awoke to someone pounding on my door. I knew Marlowe wasn’t any happier than I was about it by the way he was snarling and barking. When the events from last night suddenly rushed in on me, I went on alert.
“Marlowe!” I called in a hushed tone. “Come!”
I slipped on the soft chenille robe the resort provides to guests even in their more modest accommodations. The resort manager finally got over his huffy tone about the disaster in my cottage when I threatened to sue him because of the lousy security. He’d blanched when I asked him to consider what it could mean if word got out that two well-armed men had managed to get into the resort, destroy one of their pricey, exclusive properties, and nearly kill the occupant.
“Maybe it’s our luggage,” I muttered as I hurried to the door. “I bet you’d like your breakfast, wouldn’t you?” Marlowe wagged his tail. His food and dishes, like everything else I’d taken into the cottage, had been left behind last night. Fortunately, I hadn’t unpacked much—figuring that in a night or two I’d be in my own bed at Aunt Lettie’s house.
The police asked me to leave without collecting much more than my purse and a pair of shoes. I flushed remembering how the marshal had helped me slip out of my boots. What is my problem? I wondered. I couldn’t remember ever having met a man who’d managed to get under my skin as quickly as Austin Jennings had.
“It’s a strange bonding thing, I bet, Marlowe.” Marlowe made this funny little chuffing sound that I took to mean he agreed with me.
I hoped someone with the resort had brought my car, too. I’d left it parked in the cottage garage while police investigators searched the property for shells and other evidence about the shooters. Who knows what condition the car or my other possessions were in. When I peeked through the peephole, my mouth fell open.
“What do you want?” I asked when I’d opened the door as far as I could without undoing the chain.
“I’ve got your luggage—and a few questions—for you.” Austin stood there with my bags next to him and a basket in his hands.
“Should I put on body armor under my robe first?” I didn’t wait for a reply. I shut the door, gave the belt on my robe a tug, and then opened the door wide. “What’s that?”
“Breakfast!” Austin announced as he zipped past me into the hotel room and set the basket on a small dining table just off the kitchenette.
My new suite was nice, but nothing like the cottage Franklin Everett had reserved for me. The manager claimed this was the best he could do under the circumstances. I hadn’t raised a fuss. After being hunted like a deer, the cottage in the woods had lost its charm. The adrenalin that had raged through my body during the onslaught gave way to exhaustion as I let the resort manager drive Marlowe and me to the hotel.
“For you, too, Marlowe!” Austin tossed a little bone-shaped dog biscuit that Marlowe caught in the air. “His bowls and dog food are in the paper sack along with a few other personal items you left in the master bath.”
I stepped into the hallway and grabbed the bag. I snagged the handle on a big roller bag too and dragged it into the room. Austin was out there in a flash and hauled in the rest of my luggage.
“I brought in everything from your car since I wasn’t sure what you needed for today. Somehow, the garage and your car were undamaged. Want me to set up breakfast on the balcony?”
“Won’t I make myself an easy target for whoever you believe is trying to kill me?”
“Unless the next person who comes after you is a hotel guest or an employee, you’ll probably live through breakfast.”
“What about the storm troopers who were following you around last night?”
“They weren’t following me. I was following them. I had them cornered, too, when I saw one of them aim at you. If I hadn’t thrown him off at the last second, that first bullet wouldn’t have missed. You can tell they weren’t happy about it by what happened after that. Guns for hire don’t get full payment until the target is delivered.” An image of myself strapped to the top of a truck with a bullet in my head flitted through my mind.
“Let’s stay inside.” It was nippy out there compared to SoCal, but it wasn’t the weather that sent a chill through me. I poured kibble into a bowl for Marlowe and filled another bowl with water. When I bent over, I was rewarded with a sharp pain that skittered up my spine. Probably a casualty of one of the wrestling matches I’d had with the marshal. I sat down on the sofa in the small sitting area in my suite. “Over here, okay? I’m too sore to sit in one of those wooden chairs.”
Austin nodded as he opened the basket and pulled out a thermal pot of coffee. He found two large mugs in a cupboard above the sink and filled them. The aroma sliced like a knife through the fog in my head.
“Black?” Austin asked, holding out a mug.
“I’ll take it any way I can get it,” I replied, reaching for the steamy brew. He smirked and raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come on, how old are you? Twelve?”
“Sometimes our subconscious mind takes advantage of us in an unguarded moment.” The smirk spread into a wide grin that was hard to resist. I shook my head, and then returned the smile.
“In your dreams,” I murmured as I sipped my coffee.
How old is he really? I wondered. Thirtyish was my best guess. There were a few of the tell-tale lines that come with age around his brown eyes that were flecked with gold. Who knows how time affects a man who routinely deals with incidents like the one I survived last night.
Austin caught me scanning his face and smiled. That made the gold flecks in his eyes dance. He took a swig of his coffee and then set it down on the table in front of me. The table looked like three polished tree stumps that had been shoved together. After living in Hollywood for more than a decade, I’d forgotten how much they love wood in all its knotty glory around here.
Austin sauntered back to the table and pulled more items from the basket—muffins, fruit, and ham so smoky I could smell it from here. He’d set his Stetson on a table near the door when he came into the room. Once he’d dropped the rest of my luggage and locked the door, he’d also taken off a fleece-lined suede bomber jacket and hung it on a nearby hook. The hunter green t-shirt he wore underneath the jacket clung to his body. I tried not to stare at it or his well-fitting jeans as he stood at the kitchen table.
“Where’s your star, Marshal?”
“I’m not on duty. I arrested the bad guys, so I get a day off.”
“You did? I heard them take off, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but I knew where they were going—a cabin not far from where they went after you. I would have arrested them earlier, but I wanted to find out what they were doing. They were way too busy for a couple of guys just here to kick back and visit the wineries. Besides, one of them is a wanted fugitive which is why I tracked him here in the first place.” He sat down next to me and handed me a plate of food.
“So, what does any of this have to do with me?”
“The fugitive I picked up is wanted for murder. Not one, but several. All of them carried out quietly and professionally without the hitch he ran into last night.”
“How is it possible that a guy like that is running around free?”
“He’s a pro. No one even knew who he was until law enforcement picked him up in Texas on a speeding violation. They found an unregistered firearm in his car, took him into custody, and charged him with a minor offense. He skipped out before his court appearance. When they ran the gun through ballistics, they got a match to a couple of unsolved shootings. The name he gave to the police was a fake, but they had a mug shot and his prints. The FBI was hunting for someone who fit his description, and that turned his arrest warrant issued in Texas into a national problem for him. Long story short, the U.S. Marshals Service was assigned to bring him in when his prints turned up in the Bay Area on the body of a woman. The husband caved when the police questioned him and admitted he’d hired Aldon Kutchner to kill his wife.”
“This is fascinating, I admit,” I said as I tore off a tiny bite of ham for Marlowe who was begging in a polite way. He could beg all he wanted and wouldn’t get any more. The ham was delicious, and I was ravenous. “I don’t have a husband. Never have. I can’t think of anyone in real life I’ve ticked off enough to put out a hit on me. My character died that way, but I can’t believe a crazed fan would have the kind of money it would take to hire a pro. I got plenty of hate mail over the years from people who confused my character with me, but no one ever came after me.”
“Someone decided to kill off your character in Not Another Day.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a soap fan?”
“No, but after last night my boss, Rikki Havens, ran a background check on you. She sent me the report this morning. Who decided to have a hitman kill the Andra Weis character you played for years?”
“I don’t know. I figured it was a publicity stunt or they wanted to bring in a younger vixen to cause trouble. Maybe my agent pushed too hard to get me more money when my contract came up for renewal, and they bumped me off rather than give me a raise. To be honest, I was sick of the role and hopeful I could land something else.” I sighed. “That didn’t happen, so here I am.”
“Was your agent okay with your plan to leave Hollywood?”
“How personal is the information in that report?” I asked.
“You’re a public figure and so is your agent. The breakup wasn’t long ago, and it got plenty of media play. The husband I mentioned who put out the hit on his wife did it because she asked for a divorce. Some men don’t handle rejection well.”
“Tony and I were done long before we made it official. That I couldn’t get him to be straightforward about what happened to my character in Not Another Day was part of a bigger problem in our relationship. Agents hustle the truth all the time. I got tired of being hustled. Tony Allen can handle rejection—it’s in the job description for Hollywood agents. Besides, it wasn’t more than a couple of weeks before he was seen out on the town with Paramount Pictures latest ‘it girl,’ Elle Keenan. Fast work unless he was already wooing her before we called it quits. Wasn’t his new conquest in the report your boss dug up overnight?” I stabbed a bite of cantaloupe on my plate and shoved it into my mouth.
“It sounds like it’s been a rough year,” Austin said. When I glanced at him, he was peering at me the way he had last night. I squirmed a little under his scrutiny. I must look like hell since I hadn’t put on makeup or done my hair. Then he shook his head and spoke again.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, Tony Allen’s a damn fool. Elle Keenan may be younger, but I heard her do an interview and she couldn’t put two words together without giggling or saying something ridiculous. Too plastic, too. There wasn’t anything natural about her.” Austin reached over and tucked a loose curl behind my ear. “Want more coffee?”
“Please. More ham, too, if there’s any left.” All I need is to pile on a few more pounds, but what the heck. I wasn’t going to be standing in front of a camera that adds ten pounds, so I have a little leeway.
“More ham and coffee coming right up!” Austin beamed another of those amazing smiles, and I felt myself relax. He exuded confidence—even moved in a way that somehow made me feel everything was going to turn out all right.
“If Tony Allen’s upset with me at all, it’s not about the end of our affair, it’s because I canned him as my agent. I’m not the first one of his clients to dump him. In fact, he’s had almost as bad a year as me.”
“I’ll ask Rikki’s investigators to check him out a little more. If he blames you for the bad year he’s had, revenge could be a motive. He hasn’t taken out any life insurance on you, has he?”
“The studio, yes, but not Tony—at least as far as I know.” I tried to remember if I’d ever signed anything he put in front of me without reading it thoroughly. No. I never trusted him that much even when I was his “it girl.”
“I’m glad you caught up with those maniacs who shot at me. Can’t you rough them up, and get them to tell you who hired them? What if they have me mixed up with someone else?”
“Roughing them up will only give their lawyers wiggle room to get the charges against them dismissed based on a procedural error or a violation of their rights. I don’t want to give them that option. ‘Lawyer’ was the first word out of their mouths, so we’ll do what we can, but we won’t get much.”
“Can’t you get one of them to rat out the other one?”
“The authorities will try, but these rats may be more scared of each other than they are of going to prison. The fact that a member of law enforcement was tailing them and witnessed their attempt to kill you might make a deal more appealing. Even when things move without a hitch in the criminal justice system, it takes time.” Austin handed me more coffee and then sat down and divided the remaining ham between us. “Time’s not on our side until we figure this out. I don’t believe this was a case of mistaken identity, Lily. Nor do I believe it’s over.” I gulped when I saw the darkness enter his eyes as if he was looking inward—was it into his past or my future?
“It would be foolish to try again, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s a given that whoever’s behind hiring someone to kill you is a fool. Whatever problem you pose for someone—a problem that person believes murder will solve—hasn’t gone away. I know you told your old friend last night that you’ve come home. Why?”
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