UNFINISHED BUSINESS

a novel - by WriterJC

prologue

Summer had come and gone and he hadn't even noticed. The days were getting shorter and there was a definite chill to the air. And whomever had said that March was the windy month, didn't know about October in St. Augustus. Already, dried out, crackling leaves were blowing about the parking lot in the growing darkness, threatening to take along with them the loose pages sitting atop the box given him by old man Sauterbrandt.

Sauterbrandt was an eccentric, part of St Augustus' oldest and most upper crust. He was also on his death bed. Despite the illness that ravaged his body, his mind was sharp. For reasons completely his own, he'd decided to gift Samuel Jamieson Wright, owner and proprietor of Renaissance Restorations, Inc., with a box of classic children's tales and a 'a few other goodies'.

Sam knew Sauterbrandt by reputation only, and because he'd bid on the contract to restore the man's formidable collection. He had seemed likeable enough, actually very likeable. But that didn't mean that Sam was simply going to hand over a box of books and 'a few other goodies' to his 7 year old daughter with out checking them out first.

Which was why he found himself, far later than he would have liked, moving across a windy parking lot toward the glass-fronted door of Renaissance Restorations. The chilly air cut right through his thin white dress shirt, making him feel every degree that the temperature had dropped since he'd gone out earlier in the afternoon. But it was worth it. He'd been awarded a contract to restore a portion of Sauterbrandt's treasures - hence the briefcase stacked haphazardly atop the cumbersome cardboard box of items that the old man had given him for his daughter.

A shiver worked it's way through him as he carefully balanced his load between a ledge jutting out from the building and his knee. One handedly, he sorted through his keys, noting the familiar sound of a compressor cutting in at a neighboring warehouse, drowning out the rumble of nearby Interstate traffic.

He'd become used to the constant noise in the four years since he'd located his business in the newly refurbished warehouse district. Even at night it was still loud. The buffering trees and strategically landscaped areas helped some in absorbing the noise, but he was always glad to get inside and close the door, cocooning himself away from the outer chaos.

He'd gotten the key into the lock and turned, when his briefcase shifted sideways. His knee jerked in reflex, causing a faster descent. The leather encased briefcase tumbled to the ground, despite his best attempts to catch it.

He swore under his breath as he watched the briefcase slip down a slight decline off to the right of the door. It would have to wait until he got inside and deactivated the alarm. He was probably dangerously far into his 60 seconds anyway before the thing went off, and he didn't need another fine.

Turning back toward the door, he never really saw the blow that felled him. Just a blur of dark motion reflected against the glass door to his left. It caught him full in the gut and spun him around. Stumbling over landscaping bricks, he felt himself falling over the same decline that had taken his briefcase. There was nothing to do but go down. He barely registered the numbing pain in his shoulder as the blow to his torso had stolen every ounce of breath in his lungs. Then something hard and cold cracked against his head causing such an explosion of light and pain behind his eyes that it nearly took him under. But he remained conscious, if not quiet coherent.

Sound faded and became distant. Rough hands grabbed at him, moving over his body in a disturbingly personal manner. He felt his wallet and his watch removed, thought he heard a voice. But then the cold took over and everything faded away altogether.

Mark John Singleton, together, calm and totally in control, nearly lost the recent half-eaten meal of pasta prima vera when he saw the amount of blood that came away on the old t-shirt Sam was holding to his head. Before, when he had found his friend and sometimes business partner struggling to his feet out in the RR, Inc, parking lot, it had been dark and the blood hadn't looked so red, so oozy, so. . .

His stomach roiled and groan escaped him. Where was a nurse when you needed one? He and Sam had been standing at the ER counter for at least twenty seconds and no one had even acknowledged them. Weren't they supposed to come running on the double, like on television? His friend could pass out any minute. Hell, he could pass out any minute. Or worse, he could be sick all over the counter. Squeezing his eyes shut tightly, he forced back another round of queasiness. This was definitely not good.

"I really appreciate your helping me, Mark. Why don't you go outside and get some air." Sam's voice sounded remarkably steady despite the fact that he leaned over the reception counter, both his elbows firmly planted. His bleeding left temple was buried in a once yellow t-shirt held in his left hand.

Dark brown, nearly black hair was matted with blood and stuck spikily over the edges of the crumpled shirt. Mark didn't regret the shirt's demise. He'd probably borrowed it from Sam at some point in their very long friendship, anyway. And a friend would stick by a bloody friend.

Swallowing, he said, "S' okay. I'm glad to help. What are bloods--er, buds for?"

Sam turned his head slowly and opened his eyes. Blue eyes, reminiscent of a stormy summer sky locked on him. "Did you know if costs $350 just for the paper work if you pass out in the ER? I know that look. Go get some air."

Mark shook his head, bemused. That was the bad thing about longtime friends, they knew all your weakness. Sam had just nailed two of his: losing his cool at the sight of blood and having to fork over cash to cover the deductible on his medical insurance when the year was nearly over. Yep, Sam knew him too well. But he knew Sam, too. Sam was trying to give him an out, because another of his 'things', was embarrassing himself in public. Taking a header, or puking up his guts were both definitely high on the old red-face-o-meter.

"I'm not even going to try to figure out if that whopper is true, but I'll be in the waiting room if you need me." Patting his friend on the back, he bowed out, letting Sam win, partly because he really didn't want to puke or faint, partly because he knew his friend was in pain and just holding that hard stare was costing him, and partly because friends let bloody friends win arguments. But mostly he let him win because he saw the nurse approaching from the corner of his eyes.

As he walked away, he heard Sam talking in a low voice to the nurse as he was escorted off into the back. Shuddering out a worried sigh, he settled into a chair, thinking of Bethany, Sam's seven year old daughter. What would happen to her if something happened to Sam? He was her only parent--her only reliable parent anyway. Thank goodness it was Friday, and that she had already planned to spend the night with her best friend Jessica. It would only worry the child to see her father like this. Such a serious little worrier she was for her age. Her wide blue eyes would cloud right over, just like Sam's did and she'd go very quiet. Then she'd ask some very serious, very young question that would tear out your heart. They would definitely have to downplay this.

Then there was the Sauterbrandt contract. The old man was paying quite a lot of money to have his mixture of gaudy and classical pieces restored. The business would be great for RR. Everyone had expected the job to go to one of the bigger Restoration firms. Sauterbrant might pull the contract if he thought his treasures wouldn't be safe at Renaissance.

And then there was Sam, himself. He would no doubt want to be directly involved in the project, probably doing most of the work alone when the rest of his five person crew had gone home. What if someone got the drop on him again? What if it were more serious next time? Mark nearly had heart failure when the alarm company had called, informing him that the alarm activated, and that someone was in the building insisting that Mr. Wright was hurt. His heart just didn't need that kind of stress, but what could he do?

There was a commotion in the doorway. His eyes widened slightly as he recognized one of the individuals from a popular television program. A woman, dressed in casual business attire, stood somewhat apart. One of the men, a distinguished looking gentleman, with gray at his temples, dressed in shirt and tie, spoke quietly to her and gestured toward the waiting room. She nodded solemnly, then smiled at him before she turned and headed into the room. Caramel gold eyes met his for a moment before she settled in a chair on the opposite side of the room.

Mark eyed her thoughtfully, then struck up a conversation. She was long gone when an hour later, Sam appeared at the waiting room door looking exhausted. He smiled at his friend, and helped him to the car. He had some planning to do.

chapter one

He was very tall, long and lean. Maybe 6'2'' or 6'3''. Thick dark hair hung over his brow as he focused intently on a statuette illuminated by a large overhead lamp. Slender artistic fingers worked with a brush, expertly brushing at smooth flowing lines of the robed figure. His hands moved in almost loving motion against the rough stone, and it practically glowed for him, shining dully in the soft light.

Clad in a loose shirt over denim, his motions seemed a part of the rich blues melody that poured from speakers somewhere above. The circle of light in which he worked seemed an island among the surrounding dimness of the cluttered warehouse. The image had brought her up short from the moment she'd stepped out of the office area into dusty confines and as she moved closer, she found that she was hesitant to interrupt. But she had a job to do.

Moving into the circle of light, she cleared her throat. "Excuse me. I'm looking for Mr.--"

The man, startled, spun and focused a pair of surprised blue eyes on her. They were a nice blue, she noticed. Summer sky blue that quickly clouded over with wariness as he glanced out into the dimness surrounding them. She also noticed that he wore a small white bandage on his left temple. It was partially hidden by his hair, but she'd caught a glimpse of it when he'd moved. Reaching behind himself, he pressed a button that muted the sound of the music.

"What are you doing back here?" he asked in a low deep voice.

"I do remember passing the authorized person's only sign," Robyn conceded. But she had continued on considering she was going to be working there. It was an unusual assignment given her usual clientele, but who was she to argue semantics. Work was work.

At his odd look, she continued. "I heard the music, and there was no one at the reception desk. I'm afraid I simply followed the sound. I'm Robyn Sommers, with Personal Security Services." She placed mild emphasis on the name of the company hoping that it would jog some memory in him.

"Right." He shifted his feet and ran a dusty hand through the dark bangs that had fallen, slightly overlong, across his brow. "Claire went home early. Sorry." A quick apologetic grin caused a long dimple to appear in his left cheek.

"No problem." Robyn, pretending not to notice the streak of dusty gray that smeared across his damp brow, absolved him. A glance at her watch served a two-fold purpose: distracting her eyes that just wanted to look at him, and to try to get on with business. She was definitely going to be late if she didn't find her new client soon.

"Uh, did we make an appointment for this afternoon and I just forgot about it?" He offered a warm, friendly smile, the reached clear to his eyes. She felt immediately at ease. She couldn't help but return the smile.

"Actually, I'm here to see Mr. Samuel Wright."

The grin faded and blue eyes cooled slightly. He cocked his head slightly to the side. "Where did you say you were from?"

"Personal Security Services," Robyn repeated patiently.

"That makes you a. . . " The man gestured as he settled against the work table. ". . . a security guard?"

Robyn's brow furrowed thoughtfully. "I guess you could see it that way, but most folks are more familiar with the terms "bodyguard" or "companion". Now, if you don't mind, I'd really like to see Mr. Wright. I've an appointment -- I promise. And I'm already late."

A critical brow rose as he speared her with an intently measuring gaze. "Why do you want to see Mr. Wright? Did he hire a bodyguard?"

That was when the warning bells started going off in Robyn's mind. Something very strange was going on here. His body language was all wrong, and he placed odd emphasis on Wright's name.

"Yes, with Mr. Wright," she insisted, copying his emphasis. He'd seemed so appealing when she'd originally seen him, now she wondered if she would have to deal daily with his whiplash mood changes. Wright had hired her personally, and until he personally told her otherwise, she intended to do what she'd already been paid to do.

"Mr. Wright doesn't need a bodyguard or a companion," he said, standing away from the desk and moving to his full height. "You've obviously misunderstood whatever information you've been given. I'll show you to the door." He wrapped a hand firmly around her arm.

Robyn couldn't believe the audacity. Maybe he was the former bodyguard. Considering he spent his time playing with the sculpture, she could see why he was being replaced. In a move that her father had taught her, she disentangled herself from his grasp and faced off with him a couple paces away. "I'd really rather speak with Mr. Wright first since I'm here on his invitation. I'm sure that will clear everything up."

The sound of fast moving footsteps caught both their attentions. The man turned to look over his shoulder as the tall blonde that Robyn immediately recognized as Mr. Wright entered the room. Now, she decided, everything was going to be set straight.

Mr. Wright skidded to a halt and then, inexplicably, began to babble. "Sam! Sam, I can explain everything!"

Robyn closed her eyes, mortified, as the horrible truth hit her. The tall, dark and moody man that she'd more than likely offended, the one who had just told her in no uncertain terms to get out, was the real Samuel Wright. And her name might as well be mud.

Sam looked from Mark, his best friend since childhood who was quickly on his way to former friend, to the woman who'd introduced herself as Robyn Sommers: bodyguard/companion. Slender and feminine with dark hair, golden caramel eyes and even features, she didn't look like any bodyguard he'd ever imagined. He wouldn't even allow his mind to head in the direction of 'companion'. Either way, judging by her expression, she'd discovered that she too had been dragged into another of Mark's well-meaning schemes.

She opened her amazing eyes and leveled them on him. "I'll just be going. I apologize for barging in here on you like this. I'll be sure my company issues a full refund." She turned and headed toward the office area from which Mark had appeared.

Mark quickly moved in front of her, blocking her path. "Wait." He held his hands up in a gesture as if he were trying to stop traffic. She easily side-stepped him and continued on her way.

"Wait! Please!" Mark called after her, then turned pleading eyes on Sam. "Sam! Tell her to wait, please. Just listen. Tell her to wait."

"Mark. . ." Sam warned.

"Please Sam. Please. Just hear me out. Ask her to wait."

Sam blew out a small breath, wondering what exactly his problem was that he allowed Mark to do this to him. "Ms. Sommers. Please wait a moment."

Her steps halted but she didn't turn for several moments. When she did, it was apparent to him that at the slightest provocation she was out of there. She didn't look very happy at having been snowed.

Mark blew out a relieved breath and gestured toward her. "Just w-wait right t-there, I need to talk to Sam for a few minutes. D-don't go away." He was stuttering all over himself, a sign that he was really upset.

Sam allowed himself to be led a few feet away where presumably they would be out of their visitor's earshot. "This is for the best," Mark started. "You've got to trust me on this."

"Why is it that some of the craziest stunts that you've pulled me into have started with the phrase 'Sam, you've got to trust me on this?'"

"Because you know I'm right. And besides, it keeps your life interesting."

"Yes, interesting is one word for it," Sam said dryly. "But a bodyguard? What on earth possessed you to hire a bodyguard?"

"Several things. Shall I list them?"

Sam wanted to hear this. "Please do."

"Well, one, I did it for Beth. She needs a father, and you're the only one she's got. Two. Because of the Sauterbrandt collection. How do you know that whatever happened to you Friday didn't have something to do with that? Besides, if he thinks it's not safe for you to even go to work, how are we going to convince him not to break the contract? And three," Mark's voice softened before he continued. "Cassandra's out. I heard from Deb Mason. If she thinks you've moved on, maybe she'll leave you be."

Sam just stared at him for several long moments. Memory of Cassandra Wright, his ex-wife of 5 years always warranted a moment of silence for the wreckage she'd left of his life--more than once. No one knew better than Mark how hard it had been on him. They were tighter than brothers. He nodded quietly to himself. Yeah, that was why he let Mark do this to him.

"When were you planning on letting me in on this little plan you had for my life?" he asked, preferring not to speak further on the subject of Sandra.

"Well, today." Mark's grin was sheepish. "I got stuck in traffic on I-40."

"It's unnecessary Mark. Friday night was a mugging, plain and simple. And we do have a security system. Two of them in fact. Even if someone got into the outer office, they couldn't get back here into the vault rooms and work areas. You should tell her to leave."

Mark looked away, exasperation etched in his features. "I have a really bad feeling about this, okay? It was in the paper Sunday that Renaissance got the bid from Sauterbrandt. And doesn't it seem a little too coincidental that a week after Cassandra was released, you get mugged?"

Sam shook his head, feeling a sinking sensation as his mind was turned to memories of his ex. "Sandra wouldn't do that to me. She may not have been the most maternal person in the world, but she wouldn't do that. And she didn't commit armed robbery. She was the driver, she didn't know what the guy she was with was up to. It was the drugs that put her in that car. Wrong place, wrong time. But now she's paid her dues. She's a free woman."

Mark shook his head in obvious disbelief. "I can't believe after all this time, you still defend her."

"She's still Bethany's mother, and I won't speak badly of her. She was weak." Sam spoke fiercely. He'd determined to never speak ill of the woman who'd given birth to the most precious person in his life. He'd sworn it on the day she had walked out of both their lives. As far as Bethany was concerned, the reason she didn't see her mother was because she was sick and couldn't be with her. He would not hurt her by telling her the words Cassandra Wright had uttered more than 5 years prior when she had left them for the final time.

He remembered that it had been a beautiful sunny day, birds singing and flowers blooming with the newness of Spring. But Sandra hadn't been happy. Having preferred the fun, party-filled, alcohol-laced life she'd become accustomed to in college, she was unprepared and unequipped for motherhood. So on the sunny day, with Bethany scarcely a year old, she'd informed him that being married to him was stifling her; that if she had to spend one more day with him and their daughter that she would just shrivel up and die. All the warmth had gone out of the day. Beth had remained the only bright spot in his life.

A year later he'd given her the divorce that she'd so desperately wanted. Six months after the divorce was final, she'd been arrested for drugs. Sam had bailed her out, and she'd sworn to straighten out her life. And she did, remaining clean and sober for four months, long enough for him to trust her again, and for Bethany to become attached, and then she left them again. This time it was another man along with the drugs.

She had been caught and convicted as the driver of the getaway car when her boyfriend had robbed an all night grocery store. On his and Bethany's one and only visit in jail, Sandra had told him that she didn't want to see them. In the few years since, Sam's complete focus had become making a stable life for Beth. She had been crushed by her mother's second departure. He would allow nothing to harm her, to interfere with her security. Not even his own loneliness.

Sam drew himself out of his thoughts and turned back to his friend. "I don't need a bodyguard, Mark. Besides, look at her. I don't think she could have done anything to stop whoever jumped me. I could probably take her."

"Looks can be deceiving, my friend. And that's the whole point and beauty of my plan. If you look like you have a bodyguard, Sauterbrandt might get suspicious. Cassandra might try to get under your skin. This way, you can pass her off as your assistant, girlfriend or something, protect yourself, your business and your heart."

Sam looked over at the woman in question. She looked right back at him, silently watching and waiting. She was beautiful in an understated way, her features gentle and graceful to his artist's eye. But it was that golden gaze that worried him more than all else.

As Mark's schemes went, this was the wildest. Having Robyn Sommers around could only lead to complications, complications that he didn't need.

"Her credentials really are very good," Mark murmured near his ear. "And she's paid for the next two weeks. That should give you time to get the majority of the Sauterbrandt stuff done. Why don't you humor me on this and use her?"

Sam turned back to his friend and wiped a sleeve across his brow. Two weeks. Two weeks could prove far too upsetting to the comfortable life he'd made for himself and Bethany. Besides which, the fact was that he really didn't need a body guard. He shook his head in the negative. Then, turning, he headed toward the woman to break the news that she was not going to be in his employ. He would also tell her to keep half of whatever fee Mark had already paid her. It hadn't come out of Renaissance funds, and it would serve Mark right for meddling.