Under by Duress

By: Kayla Stonor

~ Chapter One ~





“You got me a stun gun?”

Tahima flipped over the box and read the details on the side. She half-thought Adam Hartley was having a laugh.

Her old friend and county sheriff raised placating hands. “Now don’t go all disapproving on me. I was in Jessop’s and Randy told me you’d given him your Gramps’ entire gun collection.”

“He’s selling them for me. You know I hate guns.”

“Yes, but you’re up here alone with no protection. This stun gun is the next best thing. It’s not lethal, you don’t need a license, but it does take a bit of getting used to. I thought you could practice on that freaky scarecrow of yours.”

He meant the half-dressed mannequin the birds loved and her Gramps had cursed. It had only survived this long because she’d made it when she was a child.

On impulse, Tahima rose on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Adam reddened. Ten years back, they had been teenage sweethearts. Now they were just good friends and Adam was married to her best friend, but he would always carry a small flame for her.

“I can take care of myself, you know.” She flexed a well-toned bicep making him smile.

“Maybe so. But I’m a man short and can’t drop by as much as I’d like. I’d feel happier knowing you had something to defend yourself with. How long are you staying?”

“Work gave me three months to fix the place up before the fall. I need to rent it out if I’m going to hold on to the place. Gramps couldn’t keep up with the maintenance towards the end so there’s a fair bit to do.”

“Have you checked your radio’s working okay? We’ve had a new tower installed, but you’ll still need to go south a few miles to get a signal and—”

“Adam, the radio’s fine. Stop worrying. I picked up new batteries when I got the supplies. Plenty of firewood, too, if I need it. I’m all set. You don’t need to fuss.” She didn’t tell him Walt was due next week to fix her car’s suspension that she’d knackered on the way back from Jessop’s. She brushed her chestnut hair out of her eyes. “Honestly, I’m a big girl now. Now, do you want some coffee? I’ve finished those plans.”

“Wouldn’t say no. But I want to show you how to use this thing before I go.” He took the box from her and tucked it under his arm.

Tahima led the way, automatically guiding him past the rotten step, first on her list of things to do.

“This whole place is crumbling around you,” he grumbled.

“Nothing a few alterations and a lick of paint won’t fix.”

He took a seat at the pine table in the kitchen as Tahima got out two mugs. “Got to sort through the basement first—the curator of a local museum wants to see what I’ve got. Can’t properly fix the place up until I get rid of it all anyway.”

“Place should rent out easily during the hunting season. Anna was hoping you would stay on. I told her I couldn’t see Tahima Sheldon giving up her fancy job in the city.”

Tahima poured steaming black coffee into a chipped mug. “Tell Anna we’ll go Christmas shopping. She loves New York in the winter.” She cut Adam a thick slab of apple cake then collected the plans from her bag. She laid them out on the table and pointed to the revised elevation. “Is this what you wanted?”

Adam studied the drawings in detail then grinned. “Perfect. Anna’s going to love it. Thanks, Tahima. How much do we owe you?”

“Nothing . . . Call it a trade for the stun gun.”



*****



Watching Adam’s white SUV drop out of view, Tahima sighed with relief. Complete solitude was the real reason she was here. No annoying phone calls, a twenty-mile hike to her nearest neighbor—not a good idea to run out of sugar in the Blue Ridge Mountains—but most importantly, no men to break her heart.

Stephen would be unable to track her down here. She’d never introduced him to her grandfather. Gramps would have spotted his dominating personality instantly—told her not to be such a goddamn fool—so she had kept her two lives separate. She wished she hadn’t. Gramps would have been right as Stephen had proved bad news. And yet he had been so exciting and gentle at first.