All she wants is a peaceful life. To live on her brother’s quiet Wisconsin farm and write romance novels. But one night, fate intervenes.
When ex-reporter Cassie Martin overhears a heated argument between two men, her curiosity moves into high gear. And when one of them mentions a mysterious disappearance and “manipulating time,” she has to have answers.
Aaron Reegan is the head of security at a secret facility in the Wisconsin countryside. When he happens to meet local writer Cassie Martin, sparks fly, as they realize they share dark steamy tastes. He never once questions her innocence or her motives.
Until the moment he realizes he’s been betrayed.
A chance meeting… a technology that makes the Manhattan Project look tame… and suddenly Aaron is chasing Cassie back to fourteenth century France. To save her? Aaron had thought he’d met the woman he was going to spend the rest of his life with. But now, his only choice is to kill her.
“Outlander” meets “Fifty Shades of Gray,” Time Bridge: Cassie is the first book in Time Bridge series. If you love steamy romance, time travel adventure, a smart-as-a whip heroine, and the sexiest hero to step out of the pages of a book in a long while, don’t miss “Cassie.” Mature readers comfortable with darker themes only please.
Friday, July 28th – 3 AM Central Time
Aaron Reegan looked out of the window of the Gulfstream G1 into the utter blackness, his mood as dark as the sky surrounding the jet. Somehow, at this moment, a beautiful moon shining brightly onto fields and rivers far below would have been completely inappropriate.
No, the inky black morass, with only the red light on the tip of the wing visible, was perfect. Red melting into black, red melting into black. Over and over and over, almost hypnotically. Vicious rage flaring into the dark night of the soul. Yeah. Fucking perfect metaphor.
Aaron loved to fly at night. He could relax completely when he was airborne, knowing that he was separated from the world for a few blissful hours, completely inaccessible to any and all dangers. After eight years in First Special Forces Operational Detachment, which was commonly referred to as Delta Force, he found it nearly impossible to turn off the ever present situational awareness he’d worked so hard to develop. He welcomed the six-mile-high cushion of security. Unless the plane crashed – and he never really worried about that – he was safe.
Tonight, in spite of the backdrop of the engines’ hum, there was no rest, no relaxation in the safe little cocoon of the private jet, no peaceful dozing in the super comfortable recliners. There was only disbelief and fury.
Aaron checked his watch for the twentieth time. It was almost impossible to believe, but two hours earlier, he had been sound asleep in a Los Angeles hotel. Then the phone had rung. On the other end had been Sam Winslow at the facility in Wisconsin, his words almost incomprehensible, his voice ragged with shock and panic: the security of the Goose Island Project had been breached.
And not only breached. Unknown intruders had managed to initiate the time-bridge and go through, almost causing a reactor scram in the process. On a scale of one-to-ten, this was a fifty.
Within ten minutes Aaron was in a limo on his way to LAX. Within another forty minutes, the small Gulfstream G1 was in the air. Aaron had tried to call his employers immediately, to keep them informed about the security breach, but then had realized that the three owners were on another plane, and currently out of phone range, over the Atlantic.
This timing was turning out to be very fortuitous, because when Sam sent a screen shot to Aaron’s phone, everything changed in a heartbeat and a terrible professional situation instantly morphed into a horrific personal one.
At least he’d gotten one lucky break in this night that was rapidly shaping up to be one of the shittiest of his life, and that was the most he could say. He took a deep breath and thought about another incredibly shitty night, the night his team had gotten hit with an IED in Afghanistan. Aaron had gotten most of his left foot blown off in that little incident and lost all the hearing in one ear. That was worse than this, but – he looked at what Sam had sent again and felt sick – not by much. To say that he was absolutely staggered by what was in the photo was putting it mildly. At least in Afghanistan he’d understood the enemy, understood why they hated and wanted to kill Americans.
This was someone he had trusted. Beyond trusted. This was someone he¾
The cabin intercom beeped, the voice of one of the pilots coming over the mic. “Sir, there is an incoming call for you on the satellite feed, Sam Winslow.”
He reached into the padded leather console by his side and removed the phone handset. “Sam, talk to me.” Aaron had gotten the basic outlines of the situation from Sam while he was in the limo, but now he hoped for more details.
The voice of Sam Winslow, the Goose Island Project’s head technician, came into Aaron’s ear, gravelly with stress. “No change here.”
“Has anyone tried to reopen the link?”
“No, Aaron. They can’t. I guess I didn’t say it clearly enough before. They don’t have a key. They went through without an anchor or a key. And there was no technician in the control room to close the bridge in the first place.”
How could they not… Aaron heard the words but couldn’t get his brain to grasp it. This didn’t make any sense. Why would anyone go through the time-bridge without an anchor or a key? They were the two essential pieces of technology which made everything work. The anchor fixed the time-bridge to a specific location in time, and the key, carried by the time travelers, enabled the anchor to “call” back to the present, signaling the technicians to reopen the bridge. Without those items, return was impossible.
Angrily, Aaron shook off the speculation. He could worry about that later. “What’s the reactor status?”
“I talked to the chief tech on duty tonight. The reactor never went into the red. It got close, but it never went over the line. I asked him what you told me to ask, that if there’s any way this could be kept quiet for now, we’d really appreciate it on our end.” Sam paused. “Technically, they are not required to file a report until it redlines. He said he didn’t see a problem with that. I could tell he was a little surprised at the request, though.”
“Do you know how many were on duty with him tonight?”
“I don’t know. Six or eight is a standard crew.”
“So maybe ten people know that the reactor got close to redline.” Aaron made the statement without emotion, but got chills just thinking about it. That reactor provided half the power for Minneapolis and most of eastern Minnesota. The fact that their little “project” drew enough power, albeit briefly, to nearly scram that reactor was a terrifying reality that Aaron knew none of his bosses ever really wanted to consider.
Sam continued, “I don’t know what to tell you. Somehow someone managed to clone your keycard, and they came through the back gate and into the facility with it. I have no idea who or how.”
Aaron interrupted. No use sugarcoating it. “I know her.”
There was an instant and complete silence from Sam’s side of the call. The roar of the jet engines rang into the connection. Finally, a response came, a strangled: “Excuse me?”
“I know her. I know who it was. Who it is. Who… did this.” Aaron sighed. “I know her,” he repeated flatly.
He picked up his phone and looked at the grainy picture again, as if somehow constant or repeated scrutiny might change what he’d already seen a dozen times. As if he might actually be wrong.
In the initial desperate moments after discovering the security breach, while reviewing the camera feeds, Sam had managed to snap a still shot of the feed on his monitor with his cell phone and then send it to Aaron’s phone. A cell phone shot of a video monitor, sent to another cell phone, wasn’t exactly high resolution photography, but it was clear enough.
Two people stood on the bridge platform, a woman in a rough black dress, full and long, her hair bound up and hidden in a twisted cloth, and a man in… jeans and a black tee shirt? The screen shot that Sam had sent showed the couple up on the platform, ready to step through the ring of light, a ring so bright no one could look directly at it. A ring of pure nuclear energy.
If Sam had sent a second shot, taken just an instant after this first one, Aaron knew the platform would be empty. The woman that he thought he might be falling in love with would be gone.
Aaron looked at the photograph long and hard. The woman’s hand had been on the man’s arm, and in that very last moment, she’d looked back into the control room. That one brief glance was the only reason he had been able to identify her. In the grainy shot, he could not read the expression on her face. Had she heard something behind them? Had she had a moment of regret? Was she thinking about changing her mind? Or was it something no more complicated than her head turning away from the light?
“You know the woman in the picture?” Sam could not keep the astonishment out of his voice.
Brutally, Aaron brought himself back to the present, to his conversation with Sam. “Yeah. She’s… the woman I’ve been seeing. And… hold on.” Angling his body in the seat, Aaron grabbed his briefcase, and fished his ID badge out. Flipping it over he verified what he already suspected: his keycard was gone from the plastic sleeve on the back of his ID badge. “She didn’t clone a keycard. She stole mine out of my ID badge. She knew I was leaving from the house yesterday morning to go straight to the airport and she figured I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Yeah. Oh shit.” Aaron kept his voice steady with effort. Had it really been less than forty-eight hours since he’d climbed out of his bed and left her sleepy and sore from his love making? Love making, hell. He’d screwed her brains out for six hours straight, telling her in no uncertain terms that it was his goal to leave her so sore she couldn’t walk. She had rope burns on her wrists and her nipples had been teased to raw. He’d loved it and she’d loved it and… and… and apparently while he’d been dozing between sessions, she’d gone into his bureau and into his wallet.
Hmm… Had she done it after she’d given him a blowjob? Or maybe it was before he’d brought her to a screaming climax with his mouth and the little vibrator. Yeah, he’d have to think about just when she’d fit stealing his keycard into that schedule.
Aaron took a deep breath. There was a good reason why he’d not gotten seriously involved with anyone for ten years. How in God’s name had he forgotten that over the last month?
“Christ,” Sam breathed. “I’m sorry. Who, uh, who is she?” Aaron was sharp enough to hear that Sam was keeping his voice neutral with great effort.
“Her name is Cassandra Martin, Cassie. I had thought she was a local woman, but now…” Aaron’s mind spun with the possibilities.
If she wasn’t local, there was only one other conclusion: that Aaron had been set up by someone from the outside. Sam voiced the possibility. “Where did you meet her? Is she working for someone?”
Aaron shook his head, baffled and confused. “I met her completely randomly. I’ve met her family, seen the farm where she grew up. She has to be local.” Even as he said it, though, the doubt grew. Local, maybe, but she’d also been an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune for four years. Actions spoke louder than words. Until proven otherwise, he would have to assume he had been set up.
“What about the guy?” Sam asked.
“No idea,” Aaron responded curtly. Aaron could not see the man’s face in the fuzzy photo, but he was at least a hundred and fifty pounds overweight and short to boot. He had black stringy hair running down his back, and looked, for lack of a better simile, like a fireplug, a fireplug with hair. The guy was unique enough that Aaron knew if he’d encountered him anywhere recently, he would recognize him, even from the back.
Aaron couldn’t stop looking at the moment frozen in time. Cassie was tiny, so small they’d joked more than once that her hand was barely large enough to get around his cock. Now, that hand was on this fat fuck’s arm. Rage boiled over.
Furiously, hating himself for doing it, Aaron slammed his fist against the padded fuselage of the aircraft and then again, and then, without meaning to, his fist found the rhythm of the strobe light on the wing. He didn’t know what he was going to do to Cassie when he found her – and find her he would. But the man, whoever Asshole was? Him, Aaron was going to kill.
Clearly, Sam, on the other end of the satellite call, had heard the pounding. “Aaron?” His voice was wary. “What’s going on?”
“I’m fine,” Aaron ground out. Get a grip, he admonished himself brutally. Wherever this was going, whatever he would do, he did not want his decisions forced, and, for that, he needed time. Aaron knew that nothing about this flight could stick out in the pilots’ minds. It was enough that he’d awakened them at their hotel and told them he had an urgent situation back in Wisconsin and was leaving a day early. They were accustomed enough to abrupt changes in plans from their bosses that this alone would not be enough to arose too much curiosity, but Aaron blowing his cool and pounding the crap out of one of the walls of the airplane was definitely not in line with keeping a low profile.
These two guys needed to drop Aaron off in north-western Wisconsin, and then turn right around and fly the plane back to the hangar in Chicago. Routine flight; no questions asked. Nothing to see here, sir. No hushed What the hell was that all about? to each other as they dropped him off.
Aaron took a deep breath, regretting his rash burst of temper, praying that the noise did not bring one of the men out of the cockpit, which was divided from where Aaron sat by only a thick accordion curtain. No one came, and after a moment, Aaron realized that the noise of the turbo jet engines would drown out anything less than a gunshot.
“I’m about two hours out. Hang tight, Sam.”
“Should I call anyone else in? More security, maybe?”
“No!” Aaron responded, perhaps more harshly than he meant to. He forced himself to calm down. “Is there any indication that either Mark Hiller or Becky Snow knows about this?”
“No. The only reason I know is that I got a page from the reactor crew. I think Hiller left, went to the Twin Cities for the weekend. Snow, I assume, is at home asleep.”
“Let’s leave it that way. Fire up the coffee pot. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He paused and before Sam could break the connection, Aaron asked one more time. “You’re sure… about the key. There’s no way…”
“Aaron, I’m telling you. They went through without a key, without an anchor. They cannot open the bridge to come back. Period.”
“So.” He had to know. “Where is she?”
There was a long pause before Sam answered, but finally he did. “France. Avignon, France. 11:45 in the morning, on March 15th, 1348 to be exact.”
And with those words, the betrayal was complete. Something closed forever in Aaron’s mind.
Two months earlier
Sunday, May 21st – 10 PM Central Time
Clear Water, Wisconsin
Cassandra Martin blew her breath out in a sigh and reached for another fork. Side work, the least glamorous part of an already not very glamorous job: waitressing. Just when you thought your day (or night) was over, out came a stack of clean cloth napkins and a dishwasher basket full of still warm, still damp (although hopefully clean) silverware. Napkin spread wide, knife, fork, spoon, roll, roll, fold, fold, tuck. Voila: silverware burritos. Then repeat, twenty, thirty, forty times.
Cassandra cocked her stiff neck to the side, stretched it out, and reached for another napkin. Each server at La Grotta was required to do twenty silverware rolls each night. She had only ten more to go, and then she’d be done, done with her side work, with her shift, and with her week. She could then drive home to her little cottage on her brother’s peaceful farm, to wake up in the morning to another blissful five-day stretch to write.
“Oh, damn it!” The kitchen’s double door swung open with a bang, and Cassandra’s co-worker Heather Cranston flounced in. Her invective was low-voiced enough that the few customers who remained in the restaurant could not hear her, but her frustration was clear. “You are not going to believe this.”
Cassie looked up from the small table. “What?” Unfortunately, she had an inkling.
“You know that guy that’s been sitting by himself in my section for the last hour and a half, nursing one beer? One lousy beer?” she repeated, as if this were the worst outrage of all.
Cassie nodded. La Grotta was a higher-end family, business meeting, and romantic date restaurant. Single men were a rarity and she’d noticed this customer when he’d come in. Big, handsome, and very athletic looking, he was hard to miss in his jacket, collared shirt and casually loosened tie. She hadn’t realized he was still there, though.
“When he came in, he said he was waiting for someone and now his friend finally showed up. And now, now,” she paused, tapping out a beat on the table next to Cassandra, “drum roll, if you please. They’re going to order dinner!”
Cassandra winced as she checked her watch. The dreaded 9:55 table. “I don’t suppose you could get them to eat apps at the bar?” La Grotta’s bar was open until one AM, serving basic bar snacks: cheese sticks, chicken wings, nachos and such, which the bartender prepped in his own little kitchen. As the bartender had to stay anyway, getting a late table to feast on cheese sticks in the bar was every server’s goal.
“Doubt it. These two have got something to talk about. It looks almost like a business meeting. The guy who was nursing the beer was getting right pissy, waiting.”
Cassie glanced at her watch again, then looked at Heather, guessing exactly what her co-worker was angling for. “It’s okay, Heather, I’ll stay.”
Heather didn’t even bother to dissemble. Quickly she swooped over and gave Cassie a big hug, her face pathetically happy. “Oh God, would you? My sitter costs ten bucks an hour. If I’m here another hour and a half, there’s no way I’ll make enough on this tip to cover the sitter. I lose money if I stay.”
“It’s no problem, really. I usually stay on Sunday night after my shift and have a glass of wine with Charlie at the bar anyway.” La Grotta was an old-fashioned family owned place and maintained the generous tradition of giving serving staff a shift meal and a shift drink. “If I went home, I’d just sit there and watch a movie. It’s okay,” she repeated.
What she did not say to Heather was she was more than a little interested in waiting on Mr. Hottie. She knew that the chances that anything would come of it were nil, but she’d been home in Clear Water for over two years, and the only dates she’d had were with someone’s cousin or friend.
“You cannot know how much I appreciate this, Cassie. I’ve got to be up again at six to get the kids to the bus stop. Sunday night shifts are killer for me, even when I get off at a decent hour.”
“No worries, I’ll handle it.” Cassie rose from the small table. “Just finish my side work for me, and I’ll go see if they’re ready to order.”
Cassie walked towards the kitchen door, glancing towards the big cookstove where Robby Fleury, La Grotta’s weekend chef, was scouring down the cooktop. “Better hold off on that,” she called. “Looks like we’ve got one more table.”
Robby rolled his eyes and mouthed an obscenity, but he knew the rules and immediately hung the wire brush back up on the rack.
Cassie hit the double door then paused to take a short detour. Just as a courtesy, she realized, she needed to tell Britta Pence, the restaurant’s weekend manager that she was covering Heather’s section.
Behind the kitchen was a small manager’s office, and through the open door, Cassie could see Britta sitting at her desk, credit card slips in stacks in front of her, phone cradled on her shoulder. At the sight of Cass, Britta held up a finger in a “hold on” gesture. “Yes, Dr. Marshall. We’ll look right away and I’ll call you right back.” She picked up a pen and scribbled a number on a pink post-it. “No, I’ll look right now. Yes, yes… right now.” Britta rolled her eyes at Cassie. “Yes, I’ll call you right back.”
Britta slammed the phone down. “How many times can you say the words ‘right away’ and ‘right now’ in a single conversation?” she asked rhetorically, shaking her head. “I thought he’d never shut up.”
“What’s going on?”
“You had section three tonight?” At Cassie’s nod, she continued. “Did you have a couple with two toddlers – twins? Maybe two hours ago? He said they left around eight.”
“Oh yeah, I had them.” Cassie remembered them well. After playing what her grandmother always called “Mrs. Stepenfetchit” for the mother for well over an hour, they had tipped very poorly. “I think they were at table nine.”
“Apparently, Mom was letting the kids watch something on her cell phone.”
Cassie remembered that too. After about an hour, the woman had finally made an effort to entertain the children, a fact that Cassie had been quite grateful for at the time.
“Now they can’t find it. He thinks they might have dropped it on the floor.”
“Okay.” Cassie paused. “I’m surprised I didn’t see it. We sat that table again after they left. Maybe it fell way down against the wall or something.”
“Could you look? Make sure you check between the bench and the wall. Sometimes things fall down in there, get stuck, and don’t fall all the way to the floor. It’s really hard to see.”
“Sure.” Cassie moved towards the door.
“Hold on. Cass, did you want something?” Britta’s voice came from the office behind her.
“Duh. Heather had a late table. They haven’t even ordered yet. I told her I’d take it, so she doesn’t have to pay her sitter for another two hours. So, I’ll be staying instead of her.”
“Okay, great. Thanks for letting me know.” She went back to her receipts. “Look for that phone right now, would you? Then I can call him back. Guy’s acting like they lost the Hope Diamond.”
“Yeah. I’ll be right back; so you can call him right away.” Cassie moved through the bright kitchen, Britta’s laughter behind her, and into La Grotta’s quiet dim interior. The restaurant was lit by flickering candles on every table, the owner equating dimness with elegance. The effect was intensified by high lattice-work partitions between the booths, the dividers rising another two feet above the back of the benches. For added effect, fake ivy twined into the lattices. Cassie didn’t know how “cave-like” twisted ivy was, but overall, La Grotta was right on the money; the booths were like little caves. She moved through the now nearly empty restaurant, trying to remember for sure if the couple with twins had been seated at table number nine.
She stopped, hearing voices, and realized that Heather’s late table was number ten, directly adjacent to where she was looking, just one table farther from the kitchen. She reached table nine, intending to bend down to look for the phone first, but just then, one of the men – the latecomer who was facing the kitchen – leaned over and peered around the edge of the booth. He must have seen her through the lattice work.
“Miss,” he said testily. “Can we order now?”
“Sure,” she said as she moved in front of the booth. She should try to get this order in at quickly as possible; if she were going to have to stay, at the minimum, another hour, she owed it to herself to maximize this tip. Dr. Bad Tipper was just going to have to wait a few more minutes to find out about his wife’s phone. “I’m Cassie,” she introduced herself. “I’m taking over for Heather.”
Two men sat facing each other in the deep booth. She glanced again at the first man to have come in, the one who had been waiting. Big and handsome, probably eight or ten years older than Cassie’s twenty-eight years, he looked, at first glance, like a professional with a jacket, collared shirt, tie, and khakis. But there was something else: a hint of serious muscles under that button down. You didn’t see men like this very often at La Grotta, or in Clear Water, Wisconsin, for that matter, and Cassie’s curiosity was immediately piqued.
Cassie was fairly certain she’d never seen this guy in here before. She’d hoped briefly when he’d come in that Britta would seat him in her section, but she hadn’t. Then Cassie, busy with other tables and her side work duties, had forgotten about him. She recognized the friend though, the man who had just arrived. He was more or less a regular, and Cassie had waited on him several times, but, as she thought about it, she realized she hadn’t seen him in a while: two or three months at least.
Cassie made a habit of looking at the customers’ credit cards before she returned them, so she could thank them personally. She tried to recall this man’s name now. Gray… no, Grayson. That was it, Grayson. Frank Grayson. And hadn’t he come in at least several times with another man? Cassie thought he had. In fact, it hit her now. He had come in with another man on multiple occasions, and from their demeanor, she’d made the assumption that they were probably gay. Cassie blinked, crushed. The thought that this new, incredibly hot man might be a new partner was soul crushing. Surely not.
The first man picked up his menu hurriedly. “I don’t know,” he said absently, looking across the table.
Good Lord, thought Cassie, though she kept her face carefully neutral. Sits here an hour, and hasn’t even looked at the menu. He had a briefcase open on the table, some papers and a tablet spread in front of him, so he’d obviously been working, but still.
“How hungry are you?” Grayson asked.
“Hungry.” The man paused just long enough to make his next statement meaningful. “I’ve been sitting here an hour.”
“I couldn’t¾” Grayson stopped and his eyes flickered to Cassie. Cassie got the feeling that he had wanted to say more, but didn’t because of her presence. He continued. “You shouldn’t have waited, Aaron. You should have at least ordered an appetizer.”
She knew his name now: Aaron. She kept her eyes fixed on her order pad.
“What would you get?”
Cassie raised her eyes and realized he was asking her, not Grayson. She returned the gaze and was suddenly even more aware just how good-looking he was. Dark and… military. She didn’t know why that word had popped into her head, but it fit. He did look like someone in the military, solid and lean but big at the same time. He had removed the suit jacket he’d been wearing when he came in and had rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt, revealing hard, tanned forearms. He might have come in wearing a jacket and tie, but this was no desk jockey.
And there was no way this man was gay.
Cassie blushed, just a little, and cursed her fair skin. Praying he didn’t notice her blush and wonder at it, she hurriedly blurted an answer. “Depends on what you like. If you like traditional Italian, all the pastas are good. If you prefer grilled meats, go with a steak.” She paused. “I’ve worked here two years and have had almost everything on the menu, and honestly, it’s all good.”
“So, if you were ordering?” His voice strung the question along. Even though Aaron looked distracted and irritated at the other man, he managed to give Cassie a little smile.
What the hell, thought Cass. Anything to move the table along. “I’d get the eight-ounce filet, with the side of crabmeat fra diavolo on angel hair, and a Caesar salad to start. We make the Caesar dressing fresh for every salad.”
He slapped the menu shut. “Fine. Done.” Cassie opened her mouth, but he anticipated the question. “Medium rare.”
Cassie scribbled down the order and spoke while she was writing. “I should tell you the fra diavolo sauce is pretty spicy. Just warning you. That okay?” When neither man indicated he was going to change his order, Cassie said, “Wine?”
“Do you have a house chianti?” asked Aaron.
“Yes, it’s the Allegra Antionori.”
“Glass or bottle?”
“Frank?” Aaron glanced across the table.
Aaron looked back up at Cassie. “Glass, then.” He paused. “You know, bring a bottle. I might have more than one glass, and I can always take the rest home, right?”
“Of course. We’ll re-cork it.” Cassie shoved the pad back into her apron. “I’ll get this order right in.”
She hurried back to the kitchen and pushed through the door, grinning. Directly inside the door was a small alcove where two point-of-sale systems waited on a shelf. Cassie moved to input the order on the touch screen. Two filets, two crab pastas, and two Caesar salads. It was hard to get much easier than that; Robby would be happy. Plus, both the crab dish and the Caesar salad were up-sells. Adding in the bottle of wine… she did the math in her head. She might walk out of here with a decent tip yet.
“Did you find it?”
Cassie turned to look at Britta Pence, who had come up behind her. “What?”
Britta looked impatient. “The phone. Dr. Marshall’s wife’s phone? Did you find it?”
“Oh hell, I didn’t look. Sorry. I got out there and then the table I took from Heather wanted to order.”
Britta looked a bit exasperated. “I’ll go.”
“No,” Cassie interrupted. “Hold on, it’ll take just a second to input this, and then I’ll look.”
Cassie went back out onto the restaurant floor, leaning down as she approached table nine, trying to see if she could spot the phone from this angle. She was sure she was going to have to crawl around on the floor, which she hoped was clean, although after a long busy evening (which included the twins), she was not optimistic. She reached her goal, crouched low. Gosh, it was dark under there.
Well, there it was! She felt a rush of relief. Flat up against the wall, so no wonder the next customer had not seen it. Even someone sweeping under the table would be unlikely to hit it, unless they were actively looking. Gritting her teeth, she crawled forward, reached out and grabbed the phone, then prepared to crawl backwards out from under the table. Suddenly, she paused as conversation came from the next booth.
“Frank, what are you thinking of? These security clearances are nothing to fool around with.” Aaron’s voice was low and serious. Cassie froze, realizing with a start that because of the high partitions between the booths, they had not seen her low approach to the table and had no idea she was there.
“I want to know where Kyle is.”
“I already told you, I do not know where he is. As far as I know, he’s quit. That’s all we were told.”
“He didn’t quit. After what he told me, there’s no way he would quit. He’s disappeared. And eventually people are going to start asking questions.”
“Frank, maybe you better consider that… questions might be hazardous to your health.”
“Like they were hazardous to Kyle’s health?”
“You don’t know that!” Aaron’s voice went even lower, and Cassie held still as a statue.
She had no idea who these two men were, but what they were discussing sounded serious, very serious indeed, and she had a good idea that they would not be happy to find her concealed in the dark under the next table.
“Frank, what did he tell you?”
“He told me everything.”
“He couldn’t have told you everything. He didn’t know everything.”
“Come on, Aaron. The big top secret nuclear project has very little to do with nuclear power. Very little, hell, it’s got nothing to do with nuclear power. What they’re working on there could blow the roof off the Manhattan project in terms of it being world shattering.” Frank’s voice lowered even further, even though there was no one close to the booth. His voice grew flat. “He told me the truth, Aaron. That Teddy Brandt had figured out how to manipulate… time.”
Cassie stared at the dark wall in front of her. Could she have heard correctly? Time? Had he said time? Or more precisely, manipulate time? She swallowed painfully, not daring to breathe.
“I don’t know what to say to that. How to even respond to something so ridiculous.”
“Come on, Aaron. You knew Kyle for twenty years. He told me about you. You’re a terrible liar. A good solider, but a terrible liar.”
Cassie waited for an answer, but none came. The silence grew. Just as Cassie began to fear they somehow had heard or seen her, she heard the bartender’s voice. He would have approached the table from the front of the restaurant, which was a good thing. She was under the table, but not that far in; anyone coming from the back of the restaurant, from the kitchen, could not miss her butt sticking out. Reflexively she crept a bit further into the shadows. Her heart was pounding so hard she was afraid they could hear it.
The two men, though, must have seen him approaching; that’s why they’d stopped speaking. La Grotta’s point-of-sale system automatically printed all drink orders out at the bar, so the bartender could prepare the drinks. Under normal circumstances, Cassie would go to the bar to fetch the alcohol, but sometimes when the servers were completely swamped, or conversely when the bar was dead, like tonight, Charlie would help out and bring drink orders to the tables.
“One or two glasses?” he asked.
“You sure, Frank?” Aaron asked. When no answer was forthcoming, he said, “Just one.”
She heard the cork slip free with a soft wet pop.
“Would you like a taste, sir?”
The delay as Charlie poured a small amount to sample gave Cassie a moment to think. What should she do? Whatever they were talking about, she wanted to hear more. But she couldn’t stay here much longer; with nothing else in the queue ahead of her order, Robby probably already had the salads prepped. Sure enough, even as she had the thought, she heard faintly the ding of Robby’s small old-fashioned schoolteacher’s desk bell that he used to summon servers when food was up.
The last thing she needed was for Robby or Britta to bring the salads out of the kitchen. There was no way, approaching from the back, that they would miss her hiding under a table. But she had to hear, had to know…
Then, she looked at the cell phone in her hand and froze. An inspiration formed out of nowhere and she realized what she could do. In silence she waited for her opportunity.
Aaron indicated that the wine was fine, Charlie poured him a full glass, and then Cassie heard him move away. Working with absolute stealth, Cassie slipped the lost phone into her apron pocket, twisted herself around so she was emerging from under the table head first, and began to crawl. As soon as she had cleared the table, she turned right, hugging the tables so tightly her shoulder was pressed against the benches. Cassie moved towards the kitchen in a slow crawl, each silent motion deliberate.
She couldn’t risk standing immediately because the man facing the back of the restaurant – Frank Grayson – might see her through the lattice partition separating the two booths. Crawling was also obviously a risk; servers didn’t typically crawl around on the floor of La Grotta, but Charlie had returned to his post and neither he nor the few patrons still sitting at the bar watching the sports channel could see her from their angle. So, unless someone came out of the kitchen, she was safe. She just needed a few more seconds.
As soon as she was a couple of tables away she silently rose to her feet, still crouching low, and hurried towards the kitchen door.
Robby looked at her sourly from the stove area. “Salads up.” The owners at La Grotto prided themselves on the quick service of food, keeping the salads fresh and cold, the hot food, hot. Robby, as head cook, wanted to see the food go out just as soon as it came up.
“I know, I know. Just hold on.”
“I don’t want to be here all friggin’ night, Cass.”
“Hold on!” Cassie snapped as she rushed by him.
She ignored him and went into the back room. Directly next to the restaurant’s back door was the small lounge area for the staff. In an even smaller dressing room off the lounge, someone had placed a row of old school lockers, used by the waitstaff and cooks to store their personal items: coats, purses, backpacks and such. Theoretically, they were welcome to bring a lock, but no one ever did.
Heather was gone, Cassie noted thankfully, as the last thing she wanted to do right now was field any questions from her. Diving for her locker, she opened the door and fished frantically into her purse for her cell phone. No phones on duty – it was an iron-clad rule of La Grotta – but right now that was the last thing she was worried about. Frantically, she keyed it to life, cursing her clumsiness as she got her own passcode wrong twice, but then her fingers slipped across the glass screen as she found the icon she was looking for. Two quick presses and¾
“Cass! What the fuck?” Robby was irritated now and clearly didn’t care who heard.
She could hear his muffled shout clearly, which meant that anyone else in the back – and probably people in the front – could too. Another second and Britta might come out of the office, wondering what was going on. “I’m coming,” she called back, her voice tight, hoping it would give her a few more seconds.
Cassie slipped the phone silently into her apron pocket, confused for a second when it ran into resistance, but then she realized that it was bumping up against the other phone, the one that the Marshalls had lost. She moved to stuff the purse back into her locker, and then as an afterthought quickly grabbed a tissue, knowing she was going to need some excuse for Robby. Hurrying back into the kitchen proper, she faced Robby across the stainless steel serving board.
“What the hell? I’ve already got their steaks on.”
“Sorry,” she snapped, holding the tissue aloft. “I thought I was getting a bloody nose.” She stuffed it into her apron and reached for the salads.
Robby’s face softened. He really was a nice guy, just in a hurry to get home like everyone else. “Well, don’t bleed on the customers. They don’t like that much.”
Cassie gave him a quick smile. “I’m going, I’m going.” Quickly putting the salads on a round tray, she hoisted the tray up and deftly walked through the door, banging the door aside with her bottom.
Back in the dim interior of the dining room, she tried to approach the table as quietly as possible. She heard the men’s low conversation, just a soft rumble of two deep voices, but as soon as Grayson saw her through the barrier between the two booths, the conversation stopped. She took a deep breath, forcing herself to appear as natural and relaxed as possible and quickly served the two salads.
“We’ve got some garlic bread in the oven. I’ll have it out in a second.” She looked back and forth between the two men, willing herself to be as natural as possible. “Wine okay?”
Aaron looked up at her politely and said with a small smile, “It’s fine.”
Grayson ignored her and did not drop his gaze from Aaron’s face.
“Anyone want water?” Cassie asked.
“We said, we’re fine,” Grayson snapped, never looking at her.
“Okay,” Cassie said tightly. “Your dinners will be out soon.” She turned back towards the kitchen, and without missing a beat, as she passed table nine, she dipped her suddenly shaking fingers into the pocket of her apron, fished her phone out, and flipped it onto the bench seat of the booth, where it fell absolutely soundlessly onto the soft cushion. As she moved away, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the recording software counter on the screen, blinking red.
And just as she pushed through into the kitchen again, she heard the rumbly voices of the two men softly pick up their low-voiced conversation.