Friday, December 02, 2011

Silent Night, Deadly Night

Silent Night, Deadly Night

A novella by Hannah Alexander

In an anthology titled Season of Danger (with Jill Nelson's Mistletoe Mayhem)

After sabotage strikes the Vance Rescue Mission, volunteer Sean Torrance tries to guarantee the mission a safe Christmas. But can Sean protect Tess Vance when the sabotage becomes poisonous--with Tess as target?

At eleven-thirty on Tuesday night, two hours after the canned Santa Claus music had gone blessedly silent out on the street, a squeak that sounded like rubber-sole shoes on tile reached Tess Vance from the hallway outside her locked office door. She heard footsteps…almost rushed…sneaky.

She straightened from her computer keyboard and frowned. She knew the cadence of her brother's swift pace. Gerard Vance had the legs of a giraffe. He could cover the length of the hallway in less than ten steps, and he didn't walk as if he was sneaking anywhere. Neither did Sean Torrance, who also had his office up here. Besides those two men, Tess was the only person who had a key to the admin offices.

Tess stacked several sheets of information that needed to be entered into the data system. She was preparing to stand up and stretch her aching back when she heard another echo of footsteps, rushed as before. What on earth…?

Maybe it was just her imagination working overtime with the rest of her. She glanced at the phone on the corner of her desk.

A homeless woman, Carlotta, who had come to the mission more than once for food and a place to sleep, had been found dead two weeks ago, not far from here. It appeared she'd been ill, and exposed to the elements. No one suspected foul play except Tess…and possibly Sean and Gerard, though neither of them had told her what they thought.

Tess couldn't get that awful announcement from her mind. It had been related on the local Channel 11 as a brief aside, as if Carlotta didn't matter as much as someone with money and an address.

One channel that had treated the death as a tragic event had been KSFJ, 106.1 FM. It was the radio station that had been owned and managed by the Torrance family for the past two decades. After Sean inherited the station and took over management three years ago, he'd brought it to a whole new level of popularity…and compassion.

Despite Tess's anxiety—or perhaps because of it—she settled her thoughts on Sean, who had the ability to calm her tension with nothing more than a look, a gentle word, a touch on her hand. He was the person who had helped Tess, in the past eight months since joining Gerard in the work at this mission, to convince local churches to organize a system of volunteerism for the rescue missions and soup kitchens in the region.

Sean had been a godsend to Gerard, Tess and their older brother, Hans, and to the hundreds of homeless in multiple cities who benefited from his organizational skills. Everyone who knew him benefited from his big heart. But Tess couldn't help feeling she benefited the most.

Tess smiled to herself. In contrast to her brother's Nordic blond, rugged good looks, Sean had hair as dark as the night sea, and eyes the color of midnight surf. He did share Gerard's size and strength, and thoughtful consideration toward others—despite his wicked sense of humor when he and Gerard teased Tess.

She considered calling one of the two men. Just in case. She suddenly felt reluctant to wander these hallways alone tonight.

She reached for the phone and allowed her hand to hover over it, but quickly chastised herself for being jittery. She'd worked many late nights alone in the mission with less crew than they had tonight. There was nothing to worry about. She glanced over her shoulder toward the barred window that overlooked the street, and saw nothing but a reflection of those protective bars. No movement. Maybe one of the children had somehow slipped upstairs, had become lost trying to sneak back for more of the banana pudding cake that was Sean's special—and secret—recipe.

But the kitchen was downstairs, not up here.

Something felt different tonight. Maybe it was the measure of activity that had kicked into high gear here at the mission because Christmas would be here in a little over two weeks, or maybe it was the lateness of the hour. Gerard had been forced to rely more and more on volunteer staff since Tess arrived here nine months ago—he and Hans were saving for their next move in the rescue mission project. They wanted to establish a rehabilitation center.

With the exception of Sean, who was a tireless worker, the most experienced volunteers wanted to spend more hours shopping, decorating and prepping for Christmas parties. The Vance Rescue Mission had been left with seasonal help, folks with good hearts who knew little about the work involved.

Of course, Gerard's ground rules helped a lot—when an able adult refused to work, that adult didn't eat, so those in need of food knew that they might have the opportunity to earn their keep here. Gerard believed that this rule was not only helpful for the mission, but it engendered self respect for those who worked for their meals.

Another footstep echoed out in the hallway—the sound of hesitance, only one step, then silence.

Tess closed her eyes and waited. She knew she was still suffering from stress disorder after her fiancé's death in March. The sense of horror continued to follow her nine months after Tanner Jackson was intentionally run down and killed. She was jumpy, startled easily, and seldom felt at peace in her surroundings.

Her hand continued to hover. One place she did feel at peace was in Sean's presence. And why wouldn't she be? He was six foot four and weighed probably 220, all muscle. Was she simply looking for an excuse to see him one more time tonight?

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