Following an exhausting mission, Steve drove to his house with intent to soak in a hot bath before diving into bed to sleep through the weekend. As he entered, horror struck him. The living room was a complete shambles.
He treaded warily across the room, striding over objects scattered on the floor to make his way down the corridor leading to the bedrooms. He scanned each one from ceiling to floor, checking every closet for anyone hidden. When he opened the guest bedroom, he let out of gasp.
“My God, Cassie!” Steve cried upon seeing the listless body of his fiancée sprawled ungainly on the bed. He bolted to her side to give her a cursory examination before he sat on the edge of the mattress to gently lift her into his arms. Careful to hold her head still with a hand in the back of her neck, he winced at the feel of a warm depression. He slid out his hand from underneath to notice with horror his fingers dripping with blood.
With one arm still holding the unconscious woman, Steve dialed Rudy’s number with his free hand.
“Is she conscious?” Rudy asked.
“No. I can’t wake her. She’s got a bleeding gash in the back of her head. It’s barely crusted. That can only mean that the assault happened a few minutes ago.” Steve’s head jerked up at the sound of an ominous noise coming from outside the bedroom. “Hold on Rudy. I hear something,” he informed in a low tone as he gingerly laid Cassie back on the bed. He put the receiver down on the table and proceeded to tread warily out of the room, cautious to glance both ends of the corridor to thwart any surprise attack before venturing down to the livingroom. After ensuring that no imminent threats were looming by, Steve picked up the extension to fill Rudy in on the break in.
“Rudy, could you notify Oscar to meet us at the Medical Center?”
“Sure thing, Steve. Be careful. Whoever did this might still be in the house.”
“Well if he is I’ll find him.” Steve seethed, his baby blues turning into hot fiery pokers.
“The ambulance on its way. I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
Steve walked back to the guest bedroom, his heart sinking to his stomach at the sight of his fiancée lying inert. He peeled off the quilt from the bed and spread it over Cassie, after which he went to the bathroom to fetch a damp towel that he applied directly onto the gash. “Come on Brown-Eyed Girl, open your eyes. Come on,” he egged on with every nerve and quiver as he continued to delicately wash the blood around the wound. The howling of a sudden gale force wind brought his attention to the window where he noticed a brown envelope addressed to his name resting against the mirror of the dresser. Frowning suspiciously at the item, he stood and stepped up to the dresser to satisfy his curiosity. The content of the envelope revealed glossy black and white 8 X 10 pictures of him and Cassie at various events and with it, a warning made out of newspaper clippings that read: “Get rid of her or next time she won’t be so lucky.”
Steve anxiously paced the waiting room, stealing occasional peeks at the trauma room doors in hopes to see his doctor friend emerge with a wide beam on his face. After casting an umpteenth look at his watch he stepped up to the coffee dispenser and rested his weary bones on the nearby armchair. Over the rim of his cup he caught sight of Rudy making his way through the swing doors.
Steve bolted to his feet, threw his cup into the trash bin and hurried down the hall to meet with Rudy halfway. “How is she?”
With a smile that spoke volume the good doctor patted Steve’s shoulder. “She’s going to be just fine.”
Steve heaved out a sigh of relief at the news but his curl of the lip quickly turned into a narrow line as a grim thought crossed his mind. “Rudy, tell me. Was she…?” he hazarded to ask but could not utter the word.
“Raped?” Steve nodded. ”Rest assured, she wasn’t. I gather whoever did this to her and to your house meant it as a warning.”
“I’m waiting for Oscar to give him my account so he can start an investigation. In the meantime, can I see her?”
“Sure. She should be waking up by now.”
Rudy led Steve to the far end room where the patient slumbered soundly with a serene look etched on her face.
“Wonder if she’s dreaming about me,” Steve teased with a wink directed at Rudy. He perched himself on the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle the mattress and risk rousing his sleeping beauty. He leaned in to brush a light kiss on her lips. “What about the wedding Saturday? Do we need to postpone it?”
“No need for that. I expect she’ll be out of the hospital by tomorrow. She has a hard head.”
“I heard that,” the patient muttered. She moaned and groaned at the throbbing pain her efforts in shifting position caused her. Steve offered assistance while Rudy placed another pillow behind her head. “Thanks.”
“A little bit,” she exhaled the breath she’d been holding to dull the pain. “Thanks Rudy.” She stared at Steve grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. “As for you my darling, don’t think you’re getting off the hook that easily. You got yourself into this and I intend to make you promise to love, honor and obey me.”
Steve turned to Rudy and rolled his eyes. “Not even married yet and already she’s bossing me.”
“You should be used to it by now,” Rudy wisecracked with a teasing wink.
“Cassie, do you know who did this to you?” Steve asked.
“No. All I remember is my head exploding then I blacked out. Obviously they knocked me out from behind.”
“There were no signs of a break in, so I thought perhaps you let that person inside or that you forgot to lock the door.”
“No, definitely not. I recall having bolted the front door right after I got inside. I do the same at my apartment. As for the windows, I’m sure they were all secured.”
“None were opened. I checked. When I first entered the house I found the living room in a shambles. My first thought was that someone must have been searching for a specific item like confidential files that might have been lying around. Then when I found you unconscious and the letter, I…”
“What letter?” Cassie quickly interrupted.
“It said: get rid of her or next time she won’t be so lucky.”
Cassie’s eyes widened in shock as they darted between Steve and Rudy. “That means they want me out of the way. Could this be about a jealous girlfriend? Jenny Fraser perhaps? The day she was released from prison she sought you out, begging you to give her another chance at redeeming herself. I’m sure the news of your upcoming wedding didn’t sit too well with her.”
“She doesn’t know I’m getting married. I merely told her that it could never work between us. That woman betrayed my trust and nearly had me killed. You don’t honestly believe that I would readily sweep that under the carpet and start anew?” Steve was rather outraged by the notion of Cassie believing he would seriously consider rekindling a romance with a traitor.
“I didn’t mean you, Blue Eyes, but she might see me at the obstruction that needs to be dealt with in order to get to you.”
“Well I’ll be sure look into it.”
“In the meantime you get some rest,” Rudy cut in, tapping Steve on the shoulder to prompt him to stand. “I’ll look in on you a little later.”
Cassie nodded, her dropping eyelids ruling in Rudy’s favor. Steve leaned in for a last tender kiss before following Rudy out the door.
They were met with Oscar at the nurses’ station. “How is Cassandra?”
“She’ll be fine,” Rudy assured. “Just a mild concussion.”
“Is she awake? Did she tell you who did it?”
“Yes she was and no she doesn’t know,” Steve answered dejectedly.
“The forensic team is at your house right now dusting for fingerprints.”
“What we need to do is have the note analyzed by a graphologist who can identify the handwriting; then we can compare it with the set of fingerprints you guys collect, see if we can find a match.” He handed the note to Oscar who gave it cursory glance.
“Good idea, Steve. That could greatly narrow down the list of suspects. “In the meantime, Pal,” Oscar laid on a hand on Steve’s sagging shoulder, “get some rest. You look like you’re ready to drop.”
“I will,” he turned to Rudy, “ that is if the good doctor here will be so kind to provide a bed in Cassie’s room? That way I could rest and be with her at the same time,” he hinted.
“Like I was going to say no,” Rudy quipped, rolling his eyes in disbelief. “Come on, let’s get you settled.”
“I’ll be in touch, Steve.”
Early next morning in Charleston, South Carolina, Barney Hiller and his wife Carla were busy packing their belongings for their trip to Washington. Both had been invited by the future bridegroom to attend his wedding. Unbeknownst to Steve that the estranged couple had filed for divorce for irreconcilable differences.
“Stop sulking, Barney. We’ve agreed to call a truce for the wedding.”
“And I will, just as soon as we get there,” Barney griped in return, “I’ll play the part of the perfect husband.”
“I advise you to polish your art before we get there or you’re liable to make a flop,” she spiked back without disturbing her concentration as she continued to stuff her suitcase.
“Sorry DEAR,” putting a bitter emphasis on the word, “I lack the inspiration.”
She swirled around to glare at him. “Can we at least be civilized to each other? After all we were once in love, or don’t you remember.”
Barney shot her a scorching look as he walked past her to go to the bathroom.
“It’s not my fault she’s marrying him.”
“And you don’t like that, do you?”
“I never said that.”
“Aw come on Carla, you’re still in love with Steve, admit it. I wonder why you married me.”
“Because I loved you!” she seethed with her heart pounding hard against her chest.
“And I never stopped. It’s you who changed. You know Barney, she hates your guts. That’s why you could never get to first base with her.”
“That’s because she’s was in love with Steve. She’s always been. Everyone knew it.”
“Then why did you pursue her? You knew it was a lost cause.”
“Unlike someone I know,” he narrowed his eyes in contempt, “she lent a sympathetic ear to my problems.”
“You wouldn’t let me.”
“Let’s just drop the subject, okay?” he stammered with rage, rolling his eyes in annoyance. “Besides if I were in love with Cassandra Miller as you so suspect, I wouldn’t have agreed to leave Washington, now would I?”
Carla was caught unawares by the rationale behind Barney’s comment. To avoid further discussion, she chose to remain tight-lipped and continued to sulk as she zipped her suitcase close.
“I’ll take a taxi to the airport. I’ll wait for you there,” she said icily without so much of a glance at Barney as she carried both her suitcases out of the bedroom.
“Fine!” He waited for her to bang the door close before smashing a hole in the wall with his fist. Taking a deep breath to calm the wave of fury building within, he leaned both hands against the counter and stared straight into the mirror. “Barney Hiller, what is wrong with you? Miller is off limits and you know it. Be happy for her, dammit!” he berated himself with an unyielding jaw and his neck standing out in livid ridges.
“Blue Eyes, rise and shine,” Cassie spoke softly to Steve slumbering in the next bed. “Hey, Steve!”
“Mmmmmmmm what,” he mumbled as he shifted to his side. “What?”
“Open your eyes. Time to wake up.”
Cassie’s voice finally broke into his foggy mind, prompting him to open his eyes. He broke into a wide beam at the sight of his fiancée’s greeting smile. “Cassie!” he flung the covers aside and bounced out of bed to stride up to her bed. He gently took her hand and leaned in for a tender kiss. “How are you feeling?”
“Better than yesterday. How are you?”
“You’re asking ME?”
“You seemed a little green about the gills yourself yesterday.”
“A goodnight sleep took care of that.” With eyes shining with love and admiration he gently brushed a lock of brown hair off her forehead.
“Any news on the culprit’s identity?”
“No, not yet. I’m on my way to Oscar’s office right now to see how the investigation’s going.”
“Maybe I can go with you.”
“No dice. You’re staying here and rest. Rudy said that if you’re a good girl he might let you out this afternoon.”
“You keep me abreast of the developments? After all it was my head on the line.”
Steve chuckled. “You sure are something.” He bent down to steal another kiss. “I can’t wait till Saturday.”
“Me neither.” she purred, puckered up to grab another kiss from her winsome prince.
“Now you get some shut eyes. I’ll be back in about an hour.”
Cassie sighed contentedly and slowly closed her eyes. “Sleep tight, Brown-Eyed Girl.” Steve leaned forward and dropped a light kiss on the tip of her nose, causing a blissful smile to dance on her lips.
“Is he in?” Steve asked Callahan as he entered the reception area.
“Yes, you may go in.”
“By the way, how’s Cassie this morning?”
“Better, thanks for asking.” He twitched the doorknob and let himself in.
Oscar beckoned him in from behind the desk. “Steve, come in.”
Oscar stood from his chair, a folder in hand, and came to stand beside Steve. “We had the note analyzed by a graphologist. We now need to the list of fingerprints dusted at your house to hopefully strike a match.”
“How long would it take?” Steve asked expectantly.
“A least a good twenty-four hours if not more. This is a tedious process. We can’t be wrong and wind up accusing an innocent.”
“I know,” Steve sighed heavily.
“She’s doing better. Rudy said she’ll be out of the hospital this afternoon.”
“That’s good news.”
“I’ll rent us an hotel room so she’ll be safe while the investigation is under way.”
“That’s a good idea. No one must know where you are until the wedding.”
“Oscar we’d better wrap this up before Saturday. I don’t want agents swarming all over the banquet hall, alarming the guests.”
“Whether you like it or not Steve, there will be a few of them assigned to watch over the festivities. You are a renowned personality and therefore a target. This incident is a warning.”
“I just don’t want an army of feds frisking the guests and undressing the them with their eyes.”
“That won’t come to that. I’ll do my best to move the investigation along without hastening it either.”
“I appreciate that, Oscar. Meanwhile I’ll do my own ferreting and see what I can come up with.”
With his mind lost in a whirlwind of possible conjectures, Steve failed to see the pretty brunette walking toward him. She herself was preoccupied with a similar quandary and therefore oblivious to the inevitable collision.
“Oh I’m sorry Karen,” Steve apologized, bending down to gather her files strewn all over the floor. “I didn’t see you. I guess I was daydreaming.
“Who can blame you? You’re getting married on Saturday.”
“I guess you’re right.” Steve handed her back her pile of folders. “You sure you all right?”
“Yes Steve, I’m fine. Nothing broken,” she reassured with a light squeeze on his arm. “Incidentally, how’s your fiancée doing? I heard she was attacked?”
“Steve frowned suspiciously. “How did you known about that?”
“News travel fast around here. I heard about it.”
“Oh, she’s okay. It was just a mild concussion, but the doctor wishes to keep her at the hospital an extra twenty-four hours to be on the save side,” Steve fibbed to keep Cassie’s release hush-hush for the time being.
“I understand. I hope she feels better soon. She can’t miss her big day.”
“That she won’t. Not if I can help it.” He bristled at the jaundiced smile Karen gave to his joke. She seemed offended somehow and couldn’t figure out why. “Well, I got to go now. Send my best to Erik.”
“Oh didn’t you know? Erik and I have split up.”
“Oh really?” She gave a sad nod of the head. “I’m sorry. Hey cheer up Karen. You’re a beautiful lady, inside and out. You’ll find someone soon.”
“I already have. I think.”
Steve frowned at the confusing statement but chose to dismiss it to avoid engaging into a lengthy discussion over her love life. “Keep the spirits up,” he winked before turning to the elevators.
“I am, Steve. I sure am,” she mused over what might have been had Cassandra Miller succumbed to her injuries.
As he walked to his car parked outside the building Steve was startled by a hysterical shriek. “Steve!” He jerked his head in direction of the shout. “Steve!”
“Jenny, what are you doing here?” Steve snarled, his eyes roaming over the parking area for any witness to the meeting.
“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?”
“Jenny I told you I didn’t want to see you again.” He opened the car door and took place in the driver seat.
“I didn’t think you meant it.”
“Well I did. I’m getting married on Saturday. I can’t be seen with you.”
“Why? Afraid your darling fiancée will become green with jealousy?” she taunted.
“That kind of vicious remark is one of the reason why it could never have worked between us. You are vindictive Jenny. You don’t love; you possess. It has to be your way and nobody else’s. Well I don’t like it.” He put on the ignition and slammed the door closed. He rolled the window door a few inches to leave the spurned woman with these words of advice. “Don’t bother me again Jenny or you’ll be sorry.” He then sped away.
“That’s what you think, Mister Austin,” she sneered. “I said I was going to get you and I will, one way or the other, I will.”
“No Jaime, I’m fine,” Cassie assured her friend on the phone. “It’s just a little bump on the head. Everyone tells me I’ve got a thick skull. I’m beginning to believe they might be right,” she jested to lighten the mood.
“How’s Steve’s doing? Not having cold feet is he?”
“I’m keeping them warm. I won’t have him back out of this deal, no way. I warned him what he was getting into and he and assured me he can handle it.”
“You sure drive a hard bargain Cassie,” Jaime chortled.
“You’d better believe it.” On a more solemn tone, she asked. “And how have you been doing since your break up with that handsome Colonel Tate?”
“All right, I guess,” she heaved out a sigh fraught with melancholia. “It still hurts when I think about him, but I convince myself it was for the best. We had some great times but it wasn’t meant to be forever, unlike you and Steve.”
“He still talks about you, you know.”
“He does?” Jaime answered, surprised.
“Of course he does! You never really forget your first love.”
“You must hate it.”
“No I don’t. Steve and I both had a past before we met and even when we were working together, he dated and so did I. There are no ill feelings between us. We swept them all under the carpet to start anew.”
“That’s good. I wish I had your fortitude,” Jamie lamented.
“Speaking of the devil,” Cassie smiled at Steve’s entrance, “here he is.” Steve mouthed his question. “It’s Jaime,” she said as she handed him over the phone.
Steve took the receiver and sat on the edge of the bed. “Jaime? Hi! How you doing?”
“Not bad, not bad. I guess I don’t have to ask you how you are doing? Must be floating on cloud nine.”
“You’re quite right,” he said, glancing lovingly at Cassie. “I’m pretty anxious to make this little spitfire my wife.” Cassie shot him a mocking glare. “We’re still expecting you on Saturday?”
“I wouldn’t miss it. I’m bringing Sandra with me. She’s the new teacher I was telling you about?”
“Oh yeah, the young girl who sticks to you like glue?” Steve teased.
“She’s sweet, bless her heart. She’s great with the kids and they love her. That’s the best qualification.”
“You bring her with you. We have plenty of space. The guest list has swelled up to 256 guests. Maybe you’ll get to meet some handsome bachelor.”
“Steve! You’re worse than Cassie. I’d say you two are a perfect match.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more. See you then!”
“I can’t wait.”
Steve hung up the phone and gave Cassie a disapproving look. “What?”
“I thought you were supposed to rest?”
“I couldn’t sleep any longer so I thought I’d give Jaime a call in Ojai. She said she’ll be flying in with her friend and your parents on Friday and staying at the Ambassador through the weekend.”
“And where will we be?” he teased, wagging his eyebrows as he leaned in for a kiss.
“In Hawaii on our honeymoon,” she purred seductively as she claimed his lips in a lingering kiss that was unfortunately interrupted by Rudy’s untimely entrance.
“Ooops, sorry folks,” Rudy apologized with an embarrassing grin.
“Guess we’ll have to get used to these interruptions for when we have kids,” Steve sighed in resignation, vacating his seat for Rudy to check Cassie’s pulse.
“So doc, what’s the verdict?” Cassie jested.
“You’re well enough to go home, BUT…” Rudy interjected before Cassie could whoop with glee, “you are to rest and not undertake strenuous activities.”
“What do you mean by strenuous activity? Can I argue the price of floral arrangements over the phone? Is that permitted?” Her sharp witticism brought a chuckle to Steve lips, one he tried hard to stifle.
“Only if it’s not too pricy or you’re liable to hit the roof and that would be bad for your health.” Rudy retorted, tossing the ball right back into her court.
“He’s getting pretty good, wouldn’t you agree?” Cassie quipped.
“Very,” Steve agreed still trying to conceal his amusement.
“Well you don’t have to worry about that, Rudy. The mothers are handling those details. I just need to worry about making myself beautiful on Saturday.”
A nurse entered the room to notify Steve of a phone call at the nurses’ station. “That’s probably Oscar. He may have found a lead. I’ll be right back.”
Steve left Cassie in Rudy’s care and picked up the phone at the desk. “Steve Austin.”
“Steve, it’s me.”
“I kind of figure as much. Anything new?”
“I think so. Could you meet me at your house? I have something to show you.”
“I’ll on my way.” He hung up and walked back to Cassie’s room to fill her in on Oscar’s discovery. “He didn’t tell me what it was; only to meet me at the house.”
“I hope he found something substantial because I sure am no help at all,” she griped.
“The important thing is that you’re alive. I’ll be back to get you out of this place and to a cozy hotel room downtown.”
“Hotel room?” she asked quizzically.
“While this investigation is under way I wouldn’t want anything else to happen to your pretty little self. I want you in one solid piece on Saturday,” he teased with a come-hither wink before crossing to the door
“Be careful, Steve. For aught we know you could be the next target.”
“I will. See you later.”
Cassie sank her head into her pillow and sighed heavily. “Penny for your thoughts.”
“It’s odd, Rudy, but I feel I’m on the verge of recalling a significant detail from that attack but when I apply my focus, it vanishes. Maybe I’m trying too hard.”
“What was it? A face? A sound? A smell?” Rudy probed to nudge her memory.
“I just don’t know,” she said dejectedly. “I think whoever did this wants to exact revenge on Steve. The thought of him being a walking target for some nut case scares the hell out of me.”
“Oscar?” Steve called out as he entered his house.
“In the bedroom, Steve,” Oscar shouted back.
“What have you got?”
Oscar motioned to Russ who stepped up to him holding a key. “We found this under the bed.” Steve took the object between his fingers and studied it. “A key? What does it open?”
“The front door. We assume the burglar must have accidentally dropped it when he knocked Cassie out.”
“Steve, are you in the habit of keeping a spare?”
“No. I used to but not anymore.”
“Then whoever it was had a key to your house.”
“That considerably narrows down the list of suspects,” Steve stated. “I recall by heart the people who have free access to my residence. You Oscar, Cassie, Jaime, Rudy and…” Steve looked up at Oscar with a worried frown, “Carla.”
“Carla Hiller? Barney Hiller’s wife?”
“Yes, she kept the one I gave to her while I was under psychiatric counseling after my accident. I don’t recall her ever giving it back and I never really minded.”
“She and Barney are coming to your wedding, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They told me they were flying in from North Carolina early this week to spend some time in Washington.”
“Do you know when they’ll be arriving?”
“Barney told me sometime this afternoon or late this evening, why?” Steve’s frown changed into a look of utter disbelief at Oscar’s silent pondering. “Oh no, you can’t be serious! Not Carla.”
“I’m not thinking of her, but Barney. Remember how you two parted? I even suspect he had an eye on Cassandra.”
“Oscar that’s preposterous!” Steve condemned. “Besides Barney was in Charleston, yesterday.”
“There’s only way to find out.” Steve turned to Russ, “Russ, can you find out if Barney Hiller was anywhere in the vicinity yesterday at the time of the attack?”
“That might take a while, Steve, but I’ll see what I can find.”
“Thank you.” Steve’s stare shifted back to Oscar. “Did your boys find any fingerprints on that key?”
“Clean as a whistle. That’s further proof the assailant wore gloves.”
“That’s not much to go on,” Steve surmised. “Perhaps someone got a hold of my key and made a duplicate.”
“I often leave my keys on the table by the door. Anyone could have made a quick paste print.”
“Then we’re back to square one.”