Silence finally reigned in the classroom, the noise and energy level swept out with the ten children who raced to catch their bus. Anna Stanfield walked slowly about the classroom, straightening some desks, picking up a piece of wadded paper, and savoring the quiet that came at the end of a school day.
At the window she paused, took several deep breaths, and gazed at the mountains west of Denver. A cold front was pushing the unusually warm October weather further south, the wind catching multicolored leaves and hurling them through the air like bright tennis balls. People pulled their coat fronts tighter as they bent their heads into the norther.
Anna smiled. She loved winter with its snow and crisp, chilled air, and had already gotten down her skis the weekend before. Along with her other skiing equipment, they were in her spare bedroom, just waiting for the first opportunity to use them.
Turning away from the window, she gathered up her purse and briefcase and headed for the teachers’ lounge. She was giving her friend Molly a ride home and was to meet her there.
Even before Anna opened the lounge door, she heard Molly’s booming laugh. Her best friend looked at life with a gleeful appreciation of everything; she knew she was lucky and never said otherwise. Anna had to admit that Molly was lucky, too. Her friend had a wonderful, loving husband and three adorable children. At one time Anna had thought of herself in that light.
“Oh, there you are,” Molly said as Anna entered. “I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t make it. You’re just in time to try your luck. It’s your turn this week to make the call.”
Anna hadn’t forgotten about their weekly ritual on Wednesday afternoons precisely at 4:10. “I’ve never won anything in my entire life, Molly Peterson. You try. You have the Midas touch. Last month you won your car payment.”
Molly frowned and held up the receiver. “No, you don’t. I tried last week but was caller number nineteen. Caller number twenty got the trip to Hawaii. We all agreed”—she gestured to the group of four teachers—“to take turns calling since there’s only one phone in here.”
“Besides, it’s kind of neat to see which one of us will be the chosen one,” another teacher chimed in.
“The chosen one! We all know it’s a million-to-one shot,” Anna replied with a chuckle.
“But someone has to win, so why not one of us?” Molly’s gaze scanned the group in the lounge.
“You’re an eternal optimist, Molly.” Anna shook her head as though she couldn’t believe her friend, but laughter laced her voice.
“And you’re an eternal realist. Dream, Anna,” Molly countered.
The song on the radio was over and the announcer cut into the conversation, silencing the six women. Anna moved to a chair next to the phone and waited as the disc jockey described the vacation.
Two weeks in Austria. To Anna, who had dreamed for years of skiing in the Alps, it was an unbelievable vacation. All day she had thought about the cold wind whipping past her as she sped down an alpine slope or the quiet serenity of the snow-blanketed landscape on a cross-country ski trip. Now, that was the way to see Austria.
The announcer ended his description and was giving out the number to dial. Seconds ticked by and all Anna could do was stare at the phone.
Anna, you never take chances. You ‘re afraid of life, her ex-husband Richard had told her just before he left her for another woman. I need more than a quiet, dull home life. I need someone who wants excitement.
“Anna! Call!” Molly exclaimed, pulling Anna away from her painful memories.
Slowly Anna reached for the receiver. She knew why she was hesitant. Richard had been right about her. She wanted this trip badly and hated facing the disappointment if the line was busy or she got through at the wrong time.
Anna punched one number, then two. The announcer on the radio answered the seventeenth caller. Anna’s hand froze in midair. Molly shook Anna’s arm, and she snapped out of her daze to quickly punch the last five digits.
Her heart stopped beating when she heard the phone ringing.
“Hello, this is KLUV. You’re caller…there was the slightest, suspenseful pause and Anna’s lungs burned with her bottled breath, “number twenty. Congratulations! You’ve just won yourself a trip to Austria for two.”
Suddenly the phone began to slip from Anna’s nerveless fingers. Her body was thrown into automatic control and her hand tightened about the receiver.
Someone was going to wake her from her daydream. Things like this didn’t happen to Anna Stanfield, schoolteacher and single mother.
“Who am I speaking to?” The man’s question sounded far away, as if he were shouting through a tin can.
She swallowed several times and tried to say something. Never in her life had she been speechless, but her vocal cords seemed to be paralyzed. Woman loses chance of her dream vacation because she couldn’t say her name, flashed across the screen in her mind.
“Hello? Anyone there?”
“This is—Anna Stanfield,” she finally answered in a squeaky voice.
Everyone in the lounge clapped and shouted. The disc jockey laughed and said, “I hear your cheering section. Who are they?”
“My coworkers.” Her voice, thankfully, was stronger. She inhaled deeply to ease the constriction in her lungs.
“Where do you work?”
Anna gave him the name of the elementary school she worked at.
“Are you a teacher?”
“I teach in a class for students with special needs.”
“Well, Anna Stanfield, you’re on your way to Austria for two glorious weeks. Have you ever been there or to Europe?”
“No.” Usually it wasn’t this hard to pull information out of her, but shock still held her in its grip.
“Have you got someone in mind to go along with you?”
Austria for two. She hadn’t thought about that. She hadn’t allowed herself to think about any of the details.
Who would she take? “Not yet,” she replied, shifting the receiver to her other ear. Her heartbeat was beginning to slow down and her bodily functions were returning to normal—well, as normal as possible considering she had just won the trip of a lifetime. “I can’t believe this is happening to me. Thank you.”
“Anna Stanfield, it’s definitely happening to you,” the announcer said. “In a short time you’ll be in Austria.”
As the disc jockey played another song, he took down all the information he needed, then asked Anna to stop by the radio station the following day for the necessary documents.
When Anna hung up, she looked up to find five pairs of bright eyes on her. A barrage of questions was fired at her until she held up her hand, overwhelmed, shaking her head as though still trying to grasp what had just happened.
“I’ll know more tomorrow. I’m still trying to recover,” she said to the disappointment of her fellow teachers.
After the excitement died down, Anna and Molly left. Molly had been unusually quiet in the lounge, but that hadn’t fooled Anna. She knew her best friend was just waiting until they were alone. Molly didn’t disappoint Anna.
The second they were snugly sheltered in the warmth of Anna’s car Molly asked, “When are you going?”
“I guess at Christmas. That’s the only time we have a two-week vacation, and if I go to Austria, I’ll go when I can ski.”
“Who are you going to take?”
“My boyfriend,” Anna quipped.
“You don’t have one,” Molly instantly shot back. “You haven’t dated once since Richard left two years ago.”
“You’re forgetting about that blind date you fixed me up with a few months back.”
Molly chuckled. “He was definitely forgettable. I was hoping you’d forget about my little mistake.”
“Okay, big. I should have checked him out first, but my dear, sweet husband felt sorry for the man since he had just moved to Denver. And Roy’s description was kind, to say the least.”
“I didn’t know people our age parked anymore. I thought that was for teenagers. I think that man had been frozen in time and was just thawed out this year. He was still living in the late sixties.”
“Sorry about that one. That will be the first and last time I arrange a blind date. But you haven’t answered my question. Who will you take?”
“Your son has to spend Christmas with his dad this year.”
“Maybe Richard will let me have him again for the Christmas holidays since this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
This time, when Molly laughed, there was no humor in the sound. “Richard? Do you a favor? I personally think you’re better off without that two-timing man.” Her disgust was evident in her expression and voice. “Don’t count on Richard doing it. He’ll want to get his hands on Todd to make sure you haven’t filled your son’s head with the truth. Your husband never did take the time to get to know you or he’d know you couldn’t do that.”
“Richard doesn’t get to see his son very often since he lives in Alabama,” Anna said in defense. Richard might not have been a good husband, but he was a good dad—once he had finally decided to take on his responsibilities as Todd’s father. He did more for his son now than when he was living with them.
“And whose fault is that? He’s the one who walked out and moved away from his son because his new wife didn’t want to live where it was cold.”
“Okay. Then, who? You?” Anna gave her friend a hopeful glance. She hated these minor details spoiling her dream vacation.
“I have a great husband, but I’m not sure he’s that great. Any other time and I think I could go, but it’s Christmas, and with three children that’s the most important time of year. How about your mother?”
“Mother’s visiting my sister in Florida this Christmas. She wanted me to come along. Besides, Europe never appealed to her. She’s one of those people who thinks she should see the United States first before globetrotting to parts unknown.”
“Then how about Emily? She’s single.” Emily Mason was a fellow teacher whom Anna had been a friend with ever since she started teaching after her divorce. Emily was easygoing and fun. “I’ll ask her after I find out the details tomorrow.”
“If I know Emily, she’ll be foaming at the mouth to go. I’m jealous already.”
“You don’t have to be.”
When Anna gave Molly another hopeful look, her friend laughed. “No chance. I’d be drummed out of my family.”
Anna turned her full concentration on the heavy traffic. When she had married Richard eight years before, she had envisioned them having three or four children. After Todd was born, however, Richard had declared that Todd would be it. A child curtailed his freedom too much.
She still wanted more children. Well, then start dating, an inner voice chided her.
Anna realized she should get back into the action, as Molly was always telling her, but never again would she allow herself to be swept off her feet. The next time she would take it slowly and become friends first. She had no intention of losing her heart quickly only to have it broken again.
* * *
“Emily, I’m so sorry,” Anna said, sinking down onto her bed next to her suitcase.
“I think I’m dying.” Emily began to cough and covered her receiver. Moments later she returned to the conversation, her voice hoarser. “After five years of teaching I’ve finally caught a whopper from one of my students. The doctor says it’s a combination strep throat and pneumonia. Oh, Anna, I hate letting you down like this. I hate letting myself down like this.” A half chuckle/half squeak came through the line before Emily began coughing again.
“Please don’t worry about me. just take care of yourself.”
“Have a great time. But don’t send me any postcards. I might cry.”
After hanging up, Anna stared at the floor, her hand still on the receiver.
“Anna! Where are you?” Molly called out from the living room.
Anna blinked, looked up at the door, and shouted, “I’m in my bedroom—packing.” The last word faded into the silence.
For a few seconds she was transported back in time, as though her struggle for independence had never taken place. Though she knew there had been nothing Emily could do about her illness, Anna felt as she had two years before when Richard had abandoned her. Until her ex-husband had walked out on their marriage, Anna had never had to stand on her own two feet, let alone try to raise a child by herself and be responsible for all the small things that Richard had taken care of. But she had learned over the last two years. She wasn’t the same person.
Molly appeared in her doorway. By the expression on her friend’s face, Anna knew that Emily had called her first.
“Todd let me in before running out the door to make a snowman with Buddy.” Molly moved into the room and sat on the other side of the suitcase. “I gather that Emily has called you.”
Anna nodded, tears threatening to escape her eyes.
“What are you going to do?”
Anna shrugged, a knot in her throat.
“I wish I could go, but I don’t even have a passport.”
Anna sensed her dream crumbling around her and felt helpless to stop it.
“How about your mother?”
“She’s already in Florida. She doesn’t have a passport, either.”
“And no one can get one in a day. Do you know anyone who has a passport?”
“Not anyone who’s available. Christmas is a time for family.” Anna swallowed her tears and straightened, snapping her suitcase closed. She couldn’t give up her dream. She had come to a decision. She was no longer the helpless woman she had been two years before. It was time to take chances and prove her was own person. “I’m going to Austria alone.”
* * *
Someone was watching him. Mark Prince sensed it in his bones. He was being followed—something that wasn’t unfamiliar to him. He quickened his pace and slipped into a store, pretending to examine a stein while his steely blue eyes were trained on the window. A man passed the store and slowed his step. He looked into the shop and their gazes locked.
Every muscle in Mark’s body grew taut as the man stepped into the Austrian store. Mark wasn’t fooled by the casual way the stranger browsed about the quaint little shop, also pretending to examine the collection of steins.
“I need your help. Do you think this stein would be a nice gift for my sister, Sam?” The stranger held up a pewter one.
Mark’s body tensed. His sister was named Sam. He didn’t believe in coincidences. He was sure the stranger’s sister wasn’t called Sam, if he even had one. Instead, this was some kind of a coded message from a man Mark had known in South America.
“I don’t know. Let me look at it,” Mark replied, taking the stein from the stranger, who also slipped Mark a folded piece of paper. Mark went through the motions of inspecting the mug before handing it back and replying, “Without knowing her, I wouldn’t be able to say.” Mark left the shop, certain the man wouldn’t follow him anymore. The stranger had given him what he had been sent to deliver.
The chiming of the bells of the cathedral permeated the crisp December air. The wind swept through the Salzburg street like a large broom clearing away debris. But Mark didn’t feel the cold bite of the wind. His thoughts were on the note in his hand. He found a private place and read the invitation to meet with an old friend. A chill having nothing to do with the cold temperature encased him.
Out of habit Mark turned his head from side to side, inspecting the narrow street near the Alter Markt. Whenever Michael Rutledge was around so was trouble. The street was nearly empty. Only an old couple stood beneath a trade sign of stained glass and wrought iron.
Satisfied no one was following him, Mark went through the stone archway and into the tavern, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkened interior before moving toward the table. The tavern offered warmth, privacy, and a good selection of food and drink. Mark had to commend Michael’s choice of a meeting place.
As Mark made his way across the room toward a table in the back corner, his gaze darted about, alert and gauging. He knew something big was about to happen.
Mark paused at the table and stared into the shadow that concealed his friend’s face from his view. Michael Rutledge lifted his hand and indicated that Mark should take a seat. There already were two steins of beer on the table.
“Have you heard from your sister and brother-in-law lately?” Michael asked, nothing revealed by the tone of his voice.
Mark smiled, laugh lines spraying outward from his blue eyes. “Is that why you went to all this trouble? To inquire about my family?” His smile took on a mocking twist. “You could have saved yourself a lot of time by phoning, texting, emailing, whichever you prefer.”
“Those means can be intercepted.”
Mark took several sips of his beer, his eyes completely accustomed now to the dim lighting in the tavern. He could make out the expression on Michael’s face, a half grin that Mark was very familiar with. It hid a troubled countenance that confirmed Mark’s feeling that something big was about to happen.
“Sam and Brock are fine. I believe they returned to New Orleans a few weeks ago. Sam has finally decided to sell her bookstore since she’s rarely there anymore. Is that enough information for you?”
“Always did like your sister. Too bad she met Brock first.”
Mark was surprised by Michael’s admission. He never thought Michael would allow himself to like anyone—it would be too dangerous. That was why Mark never let Michael recruit him into the “business.” He didn’t want to cut himself off from people as Michael had. Mark vividly remembered how he had gotten his sister involved in a perilous situation in the Amazon, and the mad man who had been after Mark had nearly killed her. He would never again put someone he loved in such a position.
Between sips of beer they spent the next few minutes talking about the two years since they had last seen each other in Brazil. Every muscle in Mark’s body was tight; he knew the favor that Michael wanted was something Mark wasn’t going to like. The agent was merely easing into the request.
“I read your book about that escapade in the Amazon,” Michael commented too casually. “All those years I knew you I didn’t realize you had such talent as a writer.”
“I wish I hadn’t written that book. It’s been trouble ever since.”
“I seem to remember hearing the advance on the book was quite large. You call that trouble?”
“I didn’t need the money. Remember the gold I discovered?”
“If managed right, you won’t have to work another day of your life.”
“That’s probably why I wrote the book. I like to work. The life of leisure is boring. But the fame that came with the book’s publication and the popularity of the movie made from my novel is too much for me. That’s why I escaped to Europe.”
“Getting too hot for you in the States?”
Mark recalled his last visit to the States. A woman had stolen the master key at the hotel he was staying in so she could surprise him when he had returned from a meeting with his publisher. When he had practically had to throw her out of his hotel room, she had yelled rape and had started shouting all kinds of accusations at him. Luckily the New York police were able to get to the bottom of the situation.
“You could say that. I like a pretty woman, but everywhere I went I felt like I was suffocating. Either a woman wanted to mother me because of the danger I had gone through, or she wanted to seduce me to get the gold I had found. I’m not looking for a mistress or a mother.”
“What are you looking for?”
Mark had never been a cynical man until recently. He didn’t like the feeling. “I don’t know anymore. I suppose that’s my problem. I’m at a standstill in my life.”
Michael leaned forward, throwing his face into the light. His expression was serious. “I have a proposition for you. A job, so to speak.”
“I’m through, Michael.” Actually Mark had never been a part of Michael’s governmental agency, but occasionally he did a favor because of his knowledge and familiarity with South America.
“I need you.”
Mark tensed. Those three words, as Michael well knew, were all Mark needed to hear to agree. It was Michael who had saved his life in the Amazon when the Major had been after him. He owed Michael.
“What’s the job?”
“It’s really not a job. I want to use your chalet for a few days. It’s that simple and easy.”
“Simple? Easy?” Mark arched an eyebrow and stared long and hard at his friend. “With you it never is.”
“I want you to be there, too, so no locals will think it’s strange that people are coming and going from your place.”
“My chalet is isolated. I doubt anyone would notice.”
“Precisely why we want to use your chalet, but I don’t want to take any chances. I need you there more as a precaution than anything else. You’ll be our cover.”
“I know I shouldn’t ask, but what’s going on, Michael?”
“Something very important. I can’t tell you much except that it’s a top secret meeting between a Central American country that wants to shed its Cuban advisors and the United States. We didn’t have time to secure a safe place because the country just informed us that they wanted to meet right away. That’s when I thought about your chalet. It’s in a neutral country, which satisfies the Central American country, and as you say, it’s isolated. The Cuban don’t know about it, and if we’re lucky we can keep it that way.” Michael sat back in his chair and finished his drink. “As you can see, your chalet fits our needs perfectly.”
“Do the Cubans suspect something’s up?”
“I believe so. That’s why we’re not going the usual route.”
“When’s this meeting to take place?”
“In two days. They’ll arrive at night and leave at night.”
“For how long?”
“Probably three days over Christmas.”
“What about my housekeeper and her husband? The chalet is their home.” Mark felt his skin begin to tingle with anticipation. This might be the most excitement he would have in a long time.
“We’ll be your servants. Give them a paid vacation to see their son. We’ll pay for it.”
Surprise flickered in Mark’s eyes. “You seem to have thought of everything.”
“I hope so.”
“I never imagined Christmas being spent quite like this.”
“Hopefully, the Cubans haven’t either,” Michael said with a laugh, but an underlying tension dripped off his words.
“Should I leave first or you?”
“I will. Wait ten minutes before following.”
Michael stood, shook Mark’s hand, and added, “Until we meet again.”
Mark watched his friend leave. A shudder snaked up his spine. He didn’t have a good feeling about this.