Flotsam & Jetsam

What set Ellie off anyway? A thought intruded. No, couldn’t be. He checked her profile. Nah. But his mouth formed a hopeful smile, and he leaned back, humming his favorite tune. Flotsam & Jetsam

The dashing Frenchman or the handsome handyman? Who will she choose? For the Love of a Spy

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Flotsam and Jetsam Available for Pre-Order!

Flotsam and Jetsam: the Amelia Island Affair, will be released by the fabulous Wild Rose Press on December 17. 

Who's littering the park with corpses?

State Park Rangers Simon Ribault and Ellie Ironstone are used to dealing with messy campers and ravaging raccoons, but when three bodies wash up on the beach, they mobilize all their powers of deduction. Who are they and how did they get to the shore of Amelia Island? Are they connected to the secretive League of the Green Cross? Or linked to a mysterious Jamaican drug ring?
Ellie, new to Amelia Island, must penetrate a close-knit community if she wants to find answers to the mystery, all while deciding between two rivals for her affection: Thad, the handsome local idol, and Simon, the clever, quirky bookworm.
Simon, for his part, will have to call on his not-so-well-honed romantic prowess to lure Ellie away from Thad and at the same time use his wide-ranging research skills to solve the case.

Image result for free clip art bell ringing

HOWEVER: you can preorder your very own copy at these select sites NOW:

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Mai Tais & Mayhem: When Tessa Meets Cameron

So many romances, so many crooks: can Tessa Diamond, turtle protector and amateur sleuth, keep them straight and still find true love?

I’d like to talk about my romantic suspense/murder mystery set on the Gulf coast of Florida, Mai Tais and Mayhem: Murder at Mote Marine.

Tessa volunteers at Mote Marine, which is where she meets Cameron Mason and the adventure begins. Cameron has just been hired to help lobby for the Sturgeon Commercial Demonstration Program. He and Tessa visit the aquaculture facility run by Mote for breeding sturgeon, financed by the sale of caviar. 

She learns that sturgeon in North America date back sixty million years, and in Asia two hundred million years. During that time they have remained relatively unchanged, which is why they’re often called living fossils.  Sturgeon live in lakes and rivers, and can reach 1200 pounds and 12 feet long—the Asian species grow even larger.

Lake sturgeon

When Tessa Diamond rescued a baby pufferfish from a hungry gull, her good deed led her into a shady world of smuggling, Russian gangsters, and coded messages, confronting murder, attempted ravishment, parrots, sea turtles and big fish, only to encounter blossoming romances at every turn, including one of her own.

I Heart Publishing, 12/7/2015
Contemporary romantic suspense, M/F, 2 flames, Mystery
eBook 68,840 words; print 208 pp.

Excerpt (G):  Cameron’s Eyes

“Excuse me, do you work here?”
Tessa jumped. “What the—”
A man stood next to her. His trim body and broad shoulders encased in a finely-made dark suit hinted at strength. He wore a nametag, but the writing was too small for her to decipher without getting up close and personal with his chest. Once her eyes traveled up to his face, though, she wanted to. Very badly. Talk about hot.
He reminded her of a dream she’d had a few weeks earlier, in which a stranger held her in his arms and crooned a love song. Here in the flesh was her stranger. Dark blond hair feathered with gold, the mysterious tawny eyes of a stalking tiger, gently tanned skin drawn taut over the arched cheekbones, a nose…well, the nose could use some work. It tilted at an odd angle, presumably due to a collision with a blunt instrument sometime in the past. Tessa found it endearing.
“I repeat, do you work here?”
“I…uh…no. I don’t.” She indicated the nametag. “Do you?”
“Technically yes, only not in this building. I’m hoping you can tell me which door I use to get out. I mean, now that the aquarium’s closed.”
“It is? Oh damn.” She checked her watch. Ten minutes after five. “I guess we’d both better leave.”
Together they made a circuit of the doors, finding them all locked. Finally, the door to the gift shop gave to the combined pressure of four hands. Feeling like mischievous children, they crept past the ancient man counting money from the cash register. At the main entrance, her companion grinned at her. “Shall we make a break for it?”
Tessa smiled back and legged it out to the parking lot. She was rooting around in her bag for her keys when he caught up with her. “Hey, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Well, catch your breath first.” She waited, thinking he didn’t seem in very good shape despite his physique. Good. Otherwise he might have been too perfect. She didn’t want any complications in her life right now.
“Sorry,” he puffed. “I guess I haven’t entirely recovered from that bout with pneumonia.”
“So, are you going to tell me your name? After all, we’re partners in crime now.”
“Tessa Diamond. And you are?”
“Cameron Mason. At your service.”
“Nice meeting you.” Tessa turned to her car. He cupped her elbow with a big, warm hand.
“Say, Ms. Diamond, can I interest you in a drink?”
“I don’t think...”
“You see, I was supposed to meet with the Lab director at five and he called in sick. Since I live up in Bradenton I really don’t want to schlep all the way back during rush hour. It would be nice to while away some time.” His lips curled in a tentative smile and she knew she’d have to give in. “You’d be doing me a favor. How does Tommy Bahama sound?”
Tessa gazed deep into eyes in which greens and browns intermingled in a steamy rainforest of color. She woke up with a start when he touched her elbow again. “Miss Diamond?”
“Uh, sure. That would be fine.” Can you act any lamer, Tessa? But those eyes…
“My car or yours?”
“Er, why don’t I follow you?” She should at least make an attempt at keeping her distance. Anything to get away from that scent of his, a combination of dark rum and cinnamon. Very…tasty.
“Okay. I’m the tropical blue hybrid over there. The one sporting the I Love Caviar bumper sticker.”
“And I’m…” she stopped.
“The red Porsche. I know.”
Shut up, Tessa.

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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Quirky Secondary Characters in the Pit & the Passion

At midnight, in the darkness of a deserted hotel, comes a scream and a splash. Eighty-five years later, workmen uncover a skeleton in an old elevator shaft. Who is it, and how did it get there? To find out, Charity Snow, ace reporter for the Longboat Key Planet, teams up with Rancor Bass, best-selling author. A college ring they find at the dig site may prove to be their best clue.

Although his arrogance nearly exceeds his talent, Charity soon discovers a warm heart beating under Rancor’s handsome exterior. While dealing with a drop-dead gorgeous editor who may or may not be a villain, a publisher with a dark secret, and an irascible forensic specialist, Charity and Rancor unearth an unexpected link to the most famous circus family in the world.

I love bringing the secondary characters in my stories alive. In The Mason’s Mark: Love & Death in the Tower, I have two old ladies who the heroine calls the Marples for their sleuthing skills. In Artful Dodging: the Torpedo Factory Murders, the heroine’s best friend is a wild-haired Russian artist who sculpts enormous metal objects. In The Pit & the Passion, the hero’s Aunt Gertrude is the quintessential Mainer—a rock.

Rancor comes from an old Maine family, and as families go, this one is quite colorful. Gertrude, Rancor’s aunt, is a remarkable person—custodian of the family records, compiler of family foibles and accomplishments, and stickler for proper form. Rancor calls on her to help with their search for the owner of the ring they found in the pit, and she comes through.
Strong Maine Women

Excerpt (G) Aunt Gertrude

“Is that you, my boy? Where are you? I can’t hear you.”
“I’m here in Florida, Auntie.”
“Florida? I don’t want you staying in that godforsaken place, Rancor. That’s where your grandfather met that hussy and abandoned his wife and family. Come back here to Camden where you belong. You hear me?”
“Yes, Auntie. I will soon, Auntie. Now, were you able to answer my question?”
“Question? Oh, yes. Now where did I put that note…” A loud clunk sounded, then a lot of rattling. “Hello? Hello? Rancor? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Auntie. I asked you if any men with the initials RB went to the University of Maine.”
“Yes, yes. You don’t have to ask me twice. I’m not deaf. Or feeble-minded.”
“I know that, Auntie.”
“Well, all right then,” she huffed. “I checked with the chancellor, who is an old friend of the family’s, although considering the circumstances, I don’t know how we remained on cordial terms.”
Charity squinted at Rancor.
“Excuse me?”
Gertrude went on with her monologue as though there’d been no interruption. “He was most gracious and looked up the student rolls from the 1930s. He found Basses, which doesn’t come as a surprise to me. I mean—”
“So Basses went to the University of Maine?”
“Of course. In fact, your great-great-grandfather Robert graduated in the very first class of the Maine College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts in 1873. He was a handsome man. I have a picture of him here. He’s standing next to his sister, and—”
“Auntie? Any others?”
“Of course. Basses were among the most celebrated graduates of the university—possibly because we donated masses of money to the endowment fund. Until your grandfather, that is…”
“What happened?”
“Well, Robert’s son, Robert Junior, finished in 1903 and his son, Robert the Third, three decades later. They both managed to avoid serving in the Great War, which was a real comfort to the women of the family, I can tell you. The Bass men have been singularly lucky—why, the last Bass to carry a gun was Robert T. back in the French and Indian War. Of course, he shot himself in the foot. Come to think of it, most of the Basses were not accepted into the armed forces for one reason or another. Gerald Bass—my cousin—had flat feet, and Elmer…well, let’s just say he was rather a dim bulb. Then there was—”
“Aunt Gertrude? What happened to my grandfather?”
“Robert the Third? You know what happened to him. He ran off with that tramp. It’s not something we’re proud of, but I don’t hold with keeping secrets in a family, so I made sure you children all heard the story, if only as a cautionary tale. At the time, my grandfather, Robert Junior, blamed it on the intemperate social life at the university, and he cut the school out of his will. That’s why Rupert didn’t go.”
“So the last Bass to attend the University of Maine was my grandfather Robert?”
“Yes. Now, I’ve got a list here of Bass women— we all proudly attended Vassar of course…that is, until that awful man forced us to go co-ed. I can’t tell you—”
“Oh, but you have, Aunt Gertrude. Many times.” Rancor paused. “Do you know the year of Robert Three’s graduation? Would it be 1931?” He looked through the door at Charity.
Mmm, let me see…1931? No, it was 1932.”
His eyes widened, and so did Charity’s. “Thank you very much, Aunt Gertrude. You’re a doll. Give my love to Uncle Orville.” He hung up over her loud protests. “Well.”

Related image
Camden Maine
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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Mount Vernon Bliss--Milo & Tristram Under the Lights--Excerpt from Artful Dodging

Murders,  mistrust, misfits, and miscreants—needlepoint artist Milo Everhart has her hands full. Can Tristram Brodie prove to her that love conquers all?

Brooding on both the death of her husband and the four needlepoint stockings she has to finish,  not to mention two mysterious murders, Milo Everhart is distracted by the handsome man standing in the pub doorway.

Tristram Brodie, hard-driving lawyer and former Marine, is focused on his plan to convert the Torpedo Factory Art Center into a box store. He is drawn to the beautiful woman watching him, but blocking the road to romance is his proposal to gut her beloved studio. 

As Milo and Tristram edge closer to love, they must find a way to overcome not only their differences but also the still painful memory of her loss.

Gideon's house on Windmill Hill

A Bit About the Scene:
Just south of Old Town Alexandria is Mount Vernon and the Arlington Cemetery, where Milo and Tristram go to see the Christmas decorations. Mount Vernon was, of course, George Washington’s home, a delightful colonial plantation house overlooking the Potomac River. Built in 1735, Washington expanded it over the years to twenty-one rooms. An interesting fact is that it is actually made of wood that was beveled and painted with a mix of paint and sand to look like sandstone.

At Christmas, when Milo and Tristram visit Mount Vernon, the house is beautifully decorated and there is a fireworks show. Also in attendance is Aladdin the Camel. Washington paid to bring a camel to the house the Christmas of 1787, and the event has been reenacted every year since 2008.
In this excerpt we find Milo & Tristram enjoying the holiday lights of Mount Vernon before heading home to light up the bedroom.

Excerpt (R): Mt. Vernon Bliss

“Exactly what I was thinking.”
On the other side of the river the lights of Fort Washington dotted the water with pinpricks of phosphorescence. Behind the couple on the bench the strings of silver bulbs outlining George Washington’s home shone brightly, casting long black shadows across the lawn. Two heads nestled together. Milo purred.
“Are you cold?”
“A little.”
“You want to go in?”
“Not yet. I’m too content to move.”
She heard the chuckle in his voice. “It’s been a…nice day, hasn’t it?”
She snuggled closer under his arm. “Very.”
He kissed the top of her head tentatively. “Do you mind?”
“Uh uh.”
He pulled her chin toward him and softly kissed her lips. She was too relaxed, too happy to argue. Tristram peered at her. “I can’t see your face. Are you smiling?”
For an answer, she reached up and pulled him to her. A few minutes later he placed a gentle hand on her breast and tickled the nipple through the layers of fabric, making her heart spin.
“Let’s go home.”
The familiar words brought her back to reality. “What about Ursula?”
“Ursula? What about her?”
“Don’t you live together?”
He paused. “No.” The unspoken words were clear. No more questions.
On the drive back, her tranquil state gave way to anticipation. Tristram whipped his Jaguar in and out of the sleepy parkway traffic, never overly reckless, but enough to get her heart beating faster. He didn’t speak. For some reason, his silence aroused her even more. What is he thinking? Is he going to make love to me or drop me off like so much used tissue?
They pulled up in front of Tristram’s townhouse on Lee Street. The last time they’d been together, the surroundings had paled before other, more pressing needs. Now, as he handed her out, Milo paused to survey the park that lay between them and the river. The sky opened up here, a change from the tall, impendent row houses and narrow streets of Old Town. Stars flashed in the Milky Way, and the moon grinned at her as she shivered in the chill breeze.
Tristram took her arm. “Do you think we’ll have a white Christmas this year?”
The question first hit her as so unromantic, she worried her little dream would dissipate into the night, but then the words took on a cozy kind of comfort, like the chitchat of an old established couple. “I don’t know.”
He sniffed the air. “Smells like snow. Come on, Milo.”
She followed him, stifling both the disappointment and her desire. He’s going to offer me a drink and send me home. And that’s okay. I’ll be fine. Oh, but look at that butt and those shoulders. Is he sexier in Armani or L.L. Bean?
He closed the door behind her, ran his arms around her middle, and kissed the back of her neck. The little hairs rose to meet him. Electricity shot through her like a high-tension power line. He touched the top of her head and slowly spun her around to face him. His eyes burned into hers, and her mouth went dry.
“Yes, Tristram?”
“Do you know where you are?”
“Um…your house?”
He grinned. “Just checking. You didn’t remember much about our last…encounter, and I want to make sure you are conscious during every single minute you spend here.”
Yeah, right. Forget the small talk and take me to bed, you big gorgeous lug.
Oh my God, I said that out loud! Shit.

Old Town Alexandria at Christmas

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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Dear Philomena Lost in a Cemetery in the Dark---What Happens Next?

Let’s go back for a minute to my Chincoteague mystery romance, Dear Philomena: Love, Lust & Murder on Chincoteague Island.

Something crashed in the woods.  Was it a deer?  Or something more dangerous? Dagne didn’t care; she just kept running…


Dagne Lonegan, aka Dear Philomena, advice columnist, hoped that spending a year on the Eastern Shore island of  Chincoteague would extinguish any feelings she had left for Jack Andrews, erstwhile lover and long-time jerk.  It’s just her luck that in her first week on the island she’s entangled in a murder.  Only she doesn’t know it.  Unfortunately, the murderer doesn’t know she doesn’t know.  Strange and dangerous things begin happening to her, disrupting her new romance with Aidan Ellis, the handsome manager of the National Wildlife Refuge.  As if that weren’t enough, Jack arrives to take charge of the murder investigation.

Will Dagne stick with the tall, cool glass of a Ranger or risk falling back into the arms of the man who broke her heart?

In Dear Philomena: Love, Lust & Murder on Chincoteague Island, Dagne is not only an advice columnist, but a fiction writer. Searching for historical details for her novel, she explores the many cemeteries on Chincoteague Island. Most were established and maintained by the fraternal lodges—groups like the Red Men, the Odd Fellows, Heptasoph—that once were the centers of social life on the island. That is, until Carrie A. Nation took her hatchet to them, railing against them as havens for demon rum.  Unfortunately for Dagne, in one graveyard she meets with a terrifying accident, complete with shadowy figures and open graves. The only element missing—which greatly disappoints her mother—are zombies.

Excerpt (G): Into the Grave

She must have wandered farther than she thought from the entrance, and couldn’t make out the gate in the darkling sea of monuments. She started down one path, then another. Finally, as she reached the end of one narrow corridor between two six-foot-high granite obelisks marked Howell, she saw the glint of chain link in the moon’s feeble glow. Hoping the fence would lead her to the entrance, she sidled along it, her back to the cold metal ribs. She had edged about ten yards when a pile of fresh soil six inches high and four feet wide barred her way. A wilted nosegay of plastic flowers lay strewn on the mound of a new burial, as though tossed indifferently over an uncaring shoulder. She could barely make out an inscription carved in the white marble. “Terri, beloved daughter of Silas and Violet Aster, born October 7, 1992, died September 5, 2010.”
Oh dear, this is the murder victim’s grave. How awful. As she stood there saying a little prayer for the poor girl, a rustle sounded behind her. She spun around. A couple of small grey objects flitted into a bush to her right. Gnatcatchers. Just birds. She flinched anyway. Stop it, Dagne. You’ve become way too skittish since that night on the trail. There’s nothing here but dead people and they can’t hurt you.
Her mother’s voice echoed in her ear. “Zombies!”
She spoke aloud. “That’s enough, Mother. I’m going home now.” The sound of her own voice gave her the ounce of courage she needed.
Black night descended like a preacher’s cloak thrown over the congregation. Dagne started to move past the grave, but first took a step back in an automatic gesture of respect. Her right heel met nothing but air. She twisted her body in an attempt to avoid putting the other foot down and felt something knock into her. She fell, face first, for what seemed like hours, landing squishily in soft mud. Yuck. Double yuck. She wiped her face with the back of her hand. The darkness was thicker here. She sat up and blindly stretched out her arms, palms out. Her exploring hands hit a dirt wall about two feet to her right, and another one two feet to her left. She looked up. “Hello?” No response. She could make out the dim light of the sky about…how far up? Oh my God, it must be six feet! Six feet under…I’m in an open grave!
She fought down her panic. The walls are not closing in, Dagne. She pushed herself off the floor, sinking an inch into the ooze. Raising her arms, she could just touch the surface with her fingers. She called out again without much hope. “Hello? Anyone there? Yoohoo!” Nothing but the hush of desolation echoed back. She couldn’t help herself—Great image. Remember to write it down.
She closed her mouth and exhaled through her nose, the better to listen. No birds twittered. No bushes rattled in the breeze. Come to think of it—other than her own muttered curses—she’d heard no sound after the gnatcatchers startled her. She rubbed the sore spot in the small of her back. Did something—someone?—push her? Ridiculous. Just like her mother said, she’d been reading too many thrillers. She’d probably only hit the corner of another tombstone. Come on, Dagne—no one’s there. Grab a root or something and pull yourself up.
She felt around the walls until she came across a thick tree root jutting into the hole. With one foot on it, she managed to hoist herself up. Her hands scrabbled frantically over the gravel at the top, searching for something to latch on to. Nothing. Wait. What’s that? Something hard. Stone. It seemed to be solid. She got a good grip on it and dragged herself out of the grave. She rested on her stomach for a minute to let the pounding in her chest slow down. One hand still clutched the stone so tightly she’d lost some feeling in the fingers. With her other hand she pried it off and ran her palm over the object. Raised letters. A gravestone. Her hand traveled down to soft earth and landed on a pile of plastic stems. Terri’s tombstone. She let them go, stifling a shriek.
The word drifted down through the moon’s rays. “Zombies.
At that moment, the high beams of a car flashed over the cemetery. A door slammed, the chain link gate rattled, and she heard the sound of footsteps running toward her. “Lady? Lady? What the hell are you doing?” The male voice was angry, disconcerting her.
“Who are you? Can’t you see I need help?” She pushed herself off the ground and stood up, unwilling to have this jerk find her prostrate in the dirt.
The man skidded to a stop before her and turned a flashlight full on her face. She couldn’t see more than a shadow behind the light. “Say, aren’t you that writer lady? Lives over near Piney Island?”
Déjà vu all over again. Her voice came out a little shaky, but strong enough. “Yes, I am. I fell in the open gr…hole here.” Like it isn’t obvious. “And you are?”
The man didn’t seem to hear the question. His head bobbed as though he were looking her over. He took a step toward her and now stood framed in the car’s headlights. In outline, he stood only about five feet tall. A ridge of leftover hair stuck up from the crown of his head. “You okay? What happened?”
“I...I couldn’t find the gate. I…fell. I think I’m all right.”
“Well, then, if it’s okay, I sure do wish you’d get off my daughter.”
Dagne realized she had stepped onto the fresh mound that held Terri Aster’s coffin. She scrambled off, slipping on the fresh dirt. The man held out a hand. She took it gratefully.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Aster. I didn’t mean to.”
“Yes. Well. It sure is lucky I came by when I did. I’d heard someone was hanging around here. Wanted to make sure my little girl was safe.”
“I understand.” No I don’t. His daughter is dead, isn’t she? And Mother, do shut up. Zombies do not exist. “Look, I think I’d better go home and clean up.”
“Just a minute, Miss. You haven’t told me what you’re doing here.” Did she hear an implied threat in his voice?
Dagne sighed. Her arms hurt and lumps of slimy mud kept sloughing off her stomach. “I’m researching the graveyards around here for my book. The evening came on so fast, I became disoriented and couldn’t find the entrance. I…I’m sorry. I didn’t see the …the…grave there.” No need to mention Terri’s name. Or the push or whatever it was. I’m sure I imagined it.
“Researching cemeteries, huh? Isn’t one grave same as the next? They’re all just dead people.”
Now where had she heard that before? Determined not to get into a long debate, Dagne walked unsteadily toward the gate. “Well…er…thanks, Mr. Aster. I do apologize if I upset you.”
He shrugged his shoulders, the picture of desolation. “It’s all right, Miss. Nothing much seems to matter now that my little girl’s gone.” His voice held a full measure of grief.
Dagne wracked her brain for something to say. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Mr. Aster stood quietly for a minute. She wondered if he was praying. His flashlight swept over Terri’s grave. “When I find him, I’ll kill him.”

Chincoteague ponies

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

A True Story that Inspired My Mason's Mark

The Mason's Mark: Love and Death in the Tower, arose in part out of a true story. Starting in the 1940s an Italian named Licio Gelli embarked on a lifetime of bizarre scams and crimes. Alternately linked to rightists and leftists, he bilked or used people from Italian politicians, to the Nazis, the Communists, the CIA, even to Juan Peron, dictator of Argentina. His exploits cross the globe and spanned four decades. At last check, he was still alive, in his nineties and writing poetry from prison. In 1996 he was even nominated for the Nobel prize in literature.

Gelli with Masonic symbols from his renegade lodge
Gelli is most famous for founding a Masonic lodge called Propaganda Due, a renegade group that was first dissolved, then reinstated, then erased by the Grand Orient de Italia. He had ensnared many prominent Italians into P2, which ultimately led to several huge scandals.  He is the model for the shadowy puppetmaster in my new romantic suspense novel The Mason's Mark: Love and Death in the Tower (an Old Town Romance).

The Mason’s Mark: Love & Death in the Tower

In both the best and worst first day at work ever, docent Claire Wilding meets the man of her dreams, but her carefully rehearsed guided tour of the George Washington National Masonic Memorial collapses when she discovers a body and is drawn into a dark world of black ops and Italian renegade masons, of secret cabals and hidden treasure. Also cloaked in mystery is handsome Gideon Bliss, a George Washington expert who haunts the Memorial, his manner evasive. What is his secret? Claire fears she'll fall in love with him only to learn he's a thief or even a murderer. Juggling two eccentric mothers, an inquisitive sister, and an increasingly smitten detective, Claire must find answers to a complex web of intrigue, including who to trust and who to love.

Wild Rose Press, May 6, 2016 (Crimson Rose imprint)
Mystery/Cozy Mystery, Romantic suspense
ebook 79,000 words; print 322 pp.
M/F;  3 flames

Where Gideon & Claire meet

Excerpt (PG):  First Meeting
“Next we’ll be visiting a museum devoted to George Washington. The Masonic Memorial houses an impressive collection of artifacts, some of which were donated by the Washington family and some rescued from the fire in 1871 that destroyed the first lodge. Please be sure to check out Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick’s pocket watch. He was George Washington’s close friend and presided over his death bed.”
As they filed out on the fourth floor and automatically turned right as all human flocks do, Claire surveyed the room. The black and white parquet floor sparkled. Around three sides ran a balcony, filled with small alcoves and paintings. The light from a porthole window flooded the room. As she headed toward a bust of George Washington, a shadow moved behind a column. She took a step toward it, but Mrs. Malloy’s voice stopped her. “Frank, Luther—you be good, hear? I’m gonna sit down for a bit.”
Claire watched, horror-struck, as the woman plunked down on the Chippendale chair Washington had used as Worshipful Master of the Lodge. The yellow tape meant to prevent access to it lay in tatters on the floor. She had lunged forward, one hand stretched out to grab the transgressor, when the shadow flitted across her vision again. Feeling like a spectator at a tennis match, she spun around. There. Shaking a finger at the woman and barking “No!” in her most imperious voice, she rounded a pillar. Sure enough, a man stood there by a small bookcase built into the wall.
During Claire’s training, Mr. Quinn had ground into her the absolute prohibition against unauthorized individuals wandering around in the Tower. Oh God, I hope I don’t have to call for backup. “Sir? Can I help you?”
The man jumped and turned to her, his eyes wide, giving Claire the opportunity to admire two very large orbs tinted a luminous tourmaline green. His mobile face sported a Roman nose of reasonable proportion, a strong chin only slightly marred by a salt-and-pepper stubble, and the high cheekbones of an Aztec chief. His tan was not so deep as to seem artificial. Claire had raised her eyes to behold a head of wavy, chocolate brown hair when he began to speak. His sonorous baritone—a cross between Dean Martin and Elvis Presley—captivated her and she found herself humming “That’s Amore” under her breath.
“No, thank you…er…” He peered at her chest. Her hand went protectively to the bosom that drew most eligible bachelors’ attention until she realized he was trying to read her name badge.
“Um…Claire. Claire Wilding. I’m the docent here.” She indicated her troops, at least two of whom were attempting to wreak irreparable damage on each other with a wooden staff carved in the likeness of John the Baptist. “Who are you?”
He smiled suddenly, revealing brilliant white teeth. His whole face lit up, and Claire swallowed hard. “I’m Gideon Bliss. And in case you’re wondering whether I’m here lawfully, the answer is yes.” He stuck out a large hand, calluses prominent on his trigger finger. They reminded Claire of her father’s hands. “David—Mr. Comfrey—gave me permission to visit the museum.” His eyes glinted with little flecks of gold and humor.
Claire found herself at a loss for words and not just because he’d invoked the name of the Worshipful Master of the Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge. She sank into the depths of his verdant eyes, while the mellifluous voice rolled over her. Just before she nodded off, he stopped speaking. She shook herself. “Oh, I see. Well, I’ll leave you to it.” Sheesh, Claire, are you shooting for the most pitiful female in Washington award?
Bliss hadn’t moved. “You say you’re the docent here? Could you help me find something?”
Claire dropped her eyes and mumbled, “Uh…”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Um…this is my first day. I…I doubt if I can help you.”
He chuckled. “So you didn’t actually mean anything by your first question.”
“My first…Oh, well, you know, that was sort of…rhetorical. I mean, no one is supposed to be here. Other than me. And of course them.” She waved at the group, who had now begun to congregate by the elevator doors. All except for the two boys, who were nowhere to be seen, and their mother, who continued to sprawl blithely on the President’s priceless antique chair.
Her abrupt answer seemed to annoy Bliss. “I see.” He turned back to the bookcase and pulled a large, dusty leather tome off the shelf. Claire spent a painful second staring at his rigid back and finally tore herself away, visions of emerald eyes filled with admiration at her beauty quickly evaporating.

A Mason's mark penny

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