Two Against The Odds - Excerpt


Lexie Thatcher was a crystal lying on the sandy bottom of a quiet pond. Calm and peaceful. She was as smooth and round as a washed pebble but perfectly clear. Crystal clear. Sunlight filtering through the water filled her with a pure white light.

Thoughts crept in occasionally like dark tendrils of water weeds--her stalled portrait of Sienna, her parents' disintegrating marriage, the letter from the tax office...

Gently she pushed each thought away as it arrived.

Calm. Peace. Light.

Sienna's portrait was missing a crucial element. What was it? Why was she blocked? The deadline was approaching.

Thirty-eight years old last week.

Time was ticking, ticking...

Don't think. Empty the mind. Slow the breathing.

Light. Peace. Calm.

Peace. Calm--

BING BONG.

Lexie crashed to earth with a jerk of her whole body. Now she felt the rough nap of the carpet beneath her palms, the weight of her legs, her yoga top bunched at her waist. The chattering monkeys came awake in her head, all clamoring for attention at once.

The bell rang again. BING BONG.

With a sigh she dragged herself upright and padded barefoot to the front door, pushing a hand through her long blond curls, straightening her filmy cotton skirt. Three tiny bells around her ankle tinkled with each step.

She hoped it was Andrew, the sweet little boy from next door, come to fetch the ball he was forever accidentally throwing over the fence. She loved his adorable freckled face and big green eyes. Lexie, may I get my ball?

She opened the door, her gaze pitched to knee level. "Hey, Andrew--"

Not a four year old boy with curly red hair.

Charcoal gray pant legs with a razor-sharp crease and black crocodile-skin shoes. Her gaze skimmed up the long lean figure in the well-cut suit with the white shirt open at the neck. Rich dark eyes topped by thick black brows and a ripe mouth framed by dark stubble. His hair was pushed back showing a strong widow's peak and he had a dark mole high on his right cheek.

He was slick, sexy. And young.

A buzz of awareness hummed through her despite the fact that she had to be at least ten years older than he was. "What can I do for you?"

"Rafe Ellersley." He produced a business card and held it up for her to see. "Australian Tax Office."

The buzz was abruptly silenced. With a gasp she slammed the door in his face.

She stood there, listening to her heart gallop, knowing he hadn't moved from her Welcome mat. Yes, very mature.

Bing bong.

Lexie put her hand on the knob. Sucking in a breath, she opened the door again. "Sorry. That was dumb."

"I'm used to it." His gaze started to drift down her form-fitting sleeveless top then flicked back to her eyes. "I normally don't just show up on people's doorsteps. But when people don't respond to letters or phone calls, a personal visit is the next step."

There had been letters, which she'd set aside to deal with later. And then there were the phone messages which she'd accidentally-on-purpose deleted because at first she'd been flat-out painting and didn't want to be disturbed. Then when she'd gotten stuck she'd decided their negative energy was blocking her and whoops, they were gone. And now her bad habit of procrastination had come around to bite her on the butt.

She breathed deep into her belly to stem the panic rising like a king tide. "I've been very busy with my work. Is there a problem?"

He set his briefcase on the mat at his feet. "You're being audited."

Her stomach tightened, trapping her breath. "Audited?"

"Yes. I'm here to go over your accounts with you and sort things out." He glanced over her shoulder into the small foyer. "Is this a good time?"

"No." Her house was a mess, her work in limbo, her life in chaos. "I'm busy, very busy. In fact, I must get back to what I was doing."

Lying on the floor pretending to be a crystal. It was vital to her creativity but hard to explain to a sexy young man in a suit. She started to close the door.

Quick as a wink he wedged a polished shoe between the door and the jamb. "I understand you're an artist."

"Y-es," she said, wary. She could imagine what tax accountants thought of artists--about as useful to society as bicycles were to fish. "I'm working on a portrait for the Archibald Prize."

"I'll try not to take up too much of your time. May I come in?"

"As I said, I'm busy working. I'll file my tax return soon. Promise. On my honor and all that." She gave the door another gentle shove.

His foot didn't budge. If anything, he wedged it in tighter. With his leg braced, his thigh muscle was outlined against his pant leg. "Then I'll come back later. What time do you finish for the day?"

"I work all hours. Right through the night sometimes, when things are flowing."

In fact, she hadn't done any work on Sienna's portrait for weeks but he didn't need to know that. She hadn't been completely idle, having whipped off a bunch of small seascapes of Summerside Bay for the tourist trade. She just hadn't done anything important.

"I'll come back tomorrow," he said.

"I'll be tied up all day!"

Again she pushed on the door, trying to close it. His foot didn't budge. No doubt the Australian Taxation Office issued steel-reinforced shoes for cases like hers.

Apparently the agents were reinforced with steel, too. His black eyes glinted; his smile was grim. "Ms. Thatcher, you haven't filed a tax return in four years. I will come back every day. I will camp on your doorstep if necessary, until you make the time to go through your accounts. Whether it takes weeks or months is of no difference to me. I have a job to do and I will do it." He let his words sink in before added almost casually, "If you don't comply, I have the authority to call in the Federal police."